When Dan Gilroy‘s Nightcrawler hit screens, it generated a fair amount of discussion as to whether it constitutes a genre film, but that question is altogether answered for us with his latest. Velvet Buzzsaw takes place in the world of fine art trading, a blackly comedic look at the sort of ridiculous humans who say things like, “I respect the power of your point of view,” but the film soon sails right past breezy bon mots and unscrupulous dealings into insane gore and even supernatural horror.
We’re introduced at Miami’s Art Basel to an ensemble of a-holes: Josephina (Zawe Ashton) is a would-be art agent working under the imposing Rhodora (Rene Russo). Morf (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a powerful art critic, Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge) is Rhodora’s protégé turned rival, and Gretchen (Toni Collette) is an art advisor for a wealthy client. They’re all equally terrible in their own special ways, and they come together when an elderly man dies in Josephina’s building, and she finds hundreds upon hundreds of astonishing paintings that he wanted destroyed after his death. Instead, Josephina and Rhodora start selling his work to immense acclaim and profit, with Morf, Gretchen and a half-dozen others all elevating their own careers through proximity to the late Ventryl Dease’s staggering work.
Velvet Buzzsaw would have been a blast if it were only a sly send-up of the art world, but once Rhodora and company discover Dease’s dark history, and once his paintings start, well, literally killing people, it becomes a full-blown riot. This movie is so preposterous, so profoundly weird, just hilarious and merciless and black-hearted from beginning to end. It’s missing the weight of Nightcrawler, but that feels right, too, as does the fact that this downright silly movie is premiering at Sundance. In a movie where people mistake literal trash and actual corpses as art, it’s pretty fun that Gilroy’s passing off this trashy murder show as an art film.
But for all of its camp and absurdity, Velvet Buzzsaw is a terrific-looking film, with striking interiors and city vistas (and close-ups of hairless cats staring into koi ponds), and Dease’s art is genuinely arresting. Every single performance is hilarious and memorable, and aside from the above cast that includes the only three decent characters in the film: John Malkovich as a once-brilliant artist struggling to find his vision in his new sobriety, Daveed Diggs as a relentlessly vaping newcomer to the art scene, and Natalia Dyer as the unlucky assistant who keeps managing to get hired by people right before they’re brutally murdered by art.
Gilroy has a talent at telling surreal and occasionally even hallucinatory stories with absolute coherency. It won’t take long for you to buy into Velvet Buzzsaw’s nuttiness, and once you’re invested, you’ll have a hard time wanting to leave this dumb, bloody, bonkers world.