“Velvet Buzzsaw,” Netflix’s New Art-World Horror Flick, Is a Bloody Mess
Art-world insiders love talking about how the art world is too bizarre to be properly parodied, yet everyone keeps trying. The latest example in the genre is Netflix’s Velvet Buzzsaw, a goofily gothic horror tale grafted onto the vacuous backdrop of the Los Angeles art scene. For a movie with such a high corpse-count, this one is surprisingly bloodless—an inert slog that elicits neither chills nor laughter.
The film, directed by Dan Gilroy of Nightcrawler (2014) fame, opens with an aerial shot of the Miami Beach Convention Center, home to the flashy Art Basel fair. We’re introduced to hotshot art critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he glides past irate, wannabe-VIPs at the door. He wanders the booths, the target of every dealer’s sycophantic admiration. It’s clear that Vandewalt is a rainmaker, a scribe whose positive review can catapult a young artist into the market’s stratosphere.
He spends a moment pondering a work entitled Hoboman, an animatronic mutant on crutches who hisses faux-profound inanities (“Have you ever felt invisible?”). Vandewalt is not impressed. “An iteration,” he scathes, disdainfully comparing the work to (Female figure) (2014), “no courage.” This knowing namedrop is the first sign that Velvet Buzzsaw is in trouble. The art-world initiates who nod at these sorts of references will likely balk at the film’s cartoonish rendition of their industry; civilians outside the field will just be confused, frantically Googling to keep up.
These Art Basel scenes set the tone for what follows. We’re introduced to a supposedly revolutionary sculpture, Sphere, which looks like someone downsized Cloud Gate (2004) and put holes in it. It’s an interactive piece—visitors are encouraged to stick their hands in the orifices—and as its caretaker, Gretchen (Toni Collette), breathlessly explains to Vandewalt, “it’s about choice, desire, sex, the whole enchilada.” At this point, everyone is lazily tossing bons mots at each other, so world-weary that they could just die on the spot (spoiler alert!). “You can feel the winds of the apocalypse,” a frenzied gallerist whinnies. He’s got that right.
The scene in Miami is Bret Easton Ellis–lite: everyone’s superficialities rubbing against one another, lubricated by booze and the prospect of easy money. Vandewalt’s own vibe is pretension interrupted by tiny glints of human desperation, Patrick Bateman penning the occasional Artforum Critic’s Pick. Every gallerist is gunning for a trophy—one dealer compares it all to “a safari.” A young African-American artist new to the scene, Damrish (Daveed Diggs), is a particular target; he’s considering abandoning his rough-and-tumble, urban art collective in favor of the treats that the commercial side can afford him. On the other end of the spectrum is the blue-chip icon Piers (John Malkovich), a cantankerous, muscle-car-collecting wretch who’s meant to be some unholy hybrid of
After the fair, everyone treks back to Los Angeles—where it’s always sunny and every relationship is transactional. Vandewalt is inexplicably wealthy and well-connected; he’s less of a critic than an opportunistic leech, selling out while loudly proclaiming his own independence and integrity. (“I’m not your mouthpiece!” he bellows when confronted by a dealer complaining about the financial effects of one of his negative reviews.) The critic is cozy with mega-gallerist Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), who, long ago, abandoned her scrappy punk roots in favor of making bank. She spends her days moving product while reminiscing about how raw and wild she used to be. “I invented do-it-yourself,” she boasts. On her wrist is a tattoo that reads “No Death / No Art / 1983.”
This is all heavy-handed and one-dimensional, but the introduction of the horror plotline at least holds out brief hope that the tone will shift. Haze’s colleague, Josephina (Zawe Ashton), discovers a trove of artworks in a recently deceased neighbor’s apartment. The artist, named Ventril Dease—the screenwriter was clearly on a Thomas Pynchon kick—had demanded that all of his works be destroyed upon his death. Josephina has other plans, of course. She sees marketable genius in the unremarkable canvases, which, frankly, hypnotize everyone who glances at them. “Visionary,” Vandewalt declares. “Mesmeric.” Josephina is practically hyperventilating: “Do you think there’s a market?” “Massive,” the critic pronounces.
If you haven’t guessed yet, these are no ordinary paintings—they’re haunted paintings. Collectors go apeshit over them after a blockbuster debut at Rhodora Haze’s gallery. Everyone is happily making money off the morally questionable ordeal…until people start dying, one by one. (Oh, and an expert analysis of Dease’s works uncovers the fact that they were painted using—wait for it—human blood.)
It’s here that Velvet Buzzsaw evolves into something akin to Final Destination: Art World Edition, but with less inventive dispatchings. A young gallerist ends up murdered by Dease’s vile spirit, hung by his own florid necktie. Gretchen sticks her arm into Sphere only to find that it’s become a high-end wood chipper. An art handler transporting some Dease pieces to a storage facility drives off the road, crashing into an eerie and abandoned gas station with an unsubtle name: Humble. Despite the carnage, Vandewalt remains above the fray, for a little while. At the funeral for one of Dease’s victims, he snarkily critiques the music and the color of the coffin. (“That’s my job,” he shrugs. “I’m selective.”) But he’s ultimately fated to die, as is practically every other cardboard character.
It’s almost not worth counting the missteps that Velvet Buzzsaw makes. There are the gross inaccuracies, for one—like the fact that Gretchen, who works for a made-up museum called LAMA, is at Art Basel in Miami Beach, inexplicably selling art on behalf of the institution. There are the crass and easy “Emperor’s New Clothes” sort of jokes—like when a slavering gallerist visits Piers’s studio and mistakes a few garbage bags on the floor for a new piece (“This is remarkable!”). There are the faux-artworks embedded throughout that are meant to convey how stupid contemporary art is in general: a video work that involves putting GoPro cameras on kindergarteners; an homage to a The Broad, works in Piers’s studio that we’re supposed to recognize as tiny riffs on Koons’s Play-Doh sculptures). Practically the only right notes the film hits are sartorial ones; whoever curated the eyeglasses and shoes here knew what they were doing.
But more important, Velvet Buzzsaw comes off as a hateful and pointless parody rather than a pointed social satire. (For a stab in a better direction, check out Jonathan Parker’s 2009 film (Untitled)—or even “Bully” from season 12 of Law & Order: SVU.) Velvet Buzzsaw’s art world is an airless, disgusting place. It’s impossible not to sympathize with the vengeful spirit of Ventril Dease as it handily dispatches this parade of strivers, sociopaths, and grifters. Too bad the monstrous elements here are also hackneyed—too corny to spook, not campy enough to elevate this to American Horror Story’s level of broad, dumb fun.
As the credits roll, we see Piers, who has escaped all this bloodshed since he’s been hanging out at Haze’s beach house, getting his creative groove back. He’s lost in thought, giddily tracing big,