Sundance Film Review: Dan Gilroy’s ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ is Weird, Twisted, and Too Good to Miss


2019 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL: Whatever you think you know about “Velvet Buzzsaw,” you don’t. This is a film that can’t be described. It simply has to be experienced for all the senses.

Jake Gyllenhaal is Morf Vanderwalt, an art critic whose obnoxious name matches his personality. It would be tempting to call him the lead, but he is not. That position really belongs to Zawe Ashton, who plays a young art dealer named Josephina. One morning, on her way to work at the Haze Gallery, owned by Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), she discovers her elderly neighbor has died just outside his apartment. He leaves behind no family or friends, only an enormous collection of strange and intriguing paintings that are set to be destroyed under the explicit wishes of the now deceased old man.

But when Josephina rescues the art and hands it over to her boss for sale, terrible things begin to happen.

The film serves as a strange and twisted commentary on art from multiple directions and vantage points. It constantly asks the question, What is art? And what qualifies someone to say what is good or bad? It also skewers the mindless way in which art is packaged and sold, turned into a product rather than a creative pursuit.

With this bizarre tale, Dan Gilroy plants a flag inside your brain and declares it his. This film is impossible to avoid thinking about after it is over. Like a painting in a museum, it must be discussed and debated and pondered.

And also, it is a wacky horror movie that can be thoroughly enjoyed without diving deeply into the very deliberate commentary at its heart. When it comes to horror, some films are all about the jump scares and gross-out quotient. The violent and horrific elements of “Velvet Buzzsaw” aren’t intended to make you jump once and move on. They stick with you. They haunt and linger. Much like the work of the great artists which still adorn museum walls centuries after their creation.

Setting the stage primarily in Los Angeles, Gilroy provides a view of a city that is constantly in motion and never seeming to find its destination. It is vibrant and strange, constantly changing and growing. It is a beautiful portrait of the city, and a perfect setting for a supernatural horror film with roots in the contemporary art scene.

In every corner, this cast is full of intriguing stars as even more intriguing characters. When we first meet Morf, he has an accent that is hard to pin down, partly because it constantly shifts before disappearing entirely. Not to be outdone in pretention are Rene Russo as Rhodora and Toni Colette as Gretchen. Rhodora is a ruthless representative of artists on the brink of making a lot of money. Gretchen collects pieces for a local museum.  Both are funny and terrible and incredibly savvy businesswomen.

John Malkovich and Daveed Diggs appear as working artists in different stages of their careers. The newfound paintings affect them, too, but in many different ways from those who would profit. Natalia Dyer, Billy Magnussen, and Tom Sturridge all have small but significant roles to play, providing some of the funniest and scariest moments.

From a technical standpoint, Gilroy’s film continues to shine. Marco Beltrami’s score is exciting. Robert Elswit‘s cinematography is captivating. James Bissell‘s production design is perfectly suited to the high-profit world of art dealing. Every element combines to make this a polished, glossy film that feels as expensive as the creations within it.

Just like any painting, sculpture, or performance piece, “Velvet Buzzsaw” will mesmerize some and alienate others. Don’t watch this movie alone. You will need someone next to you to discuss it after its over. And perhaps also to help check that the pictures in your house are behaving themselves.

“Velvet Buzzsaw” is distributed by Netflix and will be available globally on Friday, Feb. 1.

GRADE: (★★★★)

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