Dan Gilroy’s latest Netflix film Velvet Buzzsaw stars a plethora of top-notch actors (Jake Gyllenhaal, John Malkovich, Rene Russo and Toni Collette). Set in the highly elitist world of contemporary art, this horror film follows art agent Josephina (Zawe Ashton), who finds disturbing paintings hidden in her deceased neighbour’s flat. Soon, the death toll starts rising. One after another, characters are killed by artworks.
Although classified as a horror, Velvet Buzzsaw is a multiple-genre film, diving into the supernatural to resurface in comedy, while also being punctuated by philosophical lines. Yet this does not sustain interest for long. Having found some old newspaper clips, one of the characters starts piecing together the story behind the murderous paintings: the chaotic childhood of their painter, Vetril Dease. The painter’s past resurfaces in his unsettling art since the touches of red in the paintings come from his own blood. And yet Velvet Buzzsaw never explores Dease’s backstory fully, frustratingly suspending the viewer’s expectations. Although the murders are connected, they are not convincing and rely too much on clichéd jump scares.
These horror scenes lack suspense and are unnecessary given the film’s message runs far deeper than splatters of fake blood. Indeed, the gory murders are a distraction from its more interesting underlying commentary: how art contaminates life. Some characters are obsessed with finding the next artist en vogue, devoured by greed over selling art; others engage in an endless struggle to possess Dease’s paintings. But it always ends in the same way: death. Yet death does not only serve as punishment for these deeply flawed characters, since death itself also becomes art. A manager who ends up hanged in his own gallery becomes part of his exhibition; while next morning’s visitors believe another, amputated by a sculpture, is part of the artwork on display.
But art does not only haunt the characters: it takes over the whole film. One of the exhibited artworks is a soundproof, dark room where visitors hear whale sounds. These integrate with the film’s soundtrack, becoming part of the narrative. Even the end credits cannot overpower art: the final scene keeps rolling, showing artist Piers (John Malkovich) drawing endlessly on sand being washed over by seawater. This is a final reminder of the film’s message: art has taken over all forms of life. Piers will forever draw on the sand and is doomed to continue for eternity. Art even takes over language. The art critic Morf (Jake Gyllenhaal) speaks in the same circumvoluted way as his reviews. Even the unique sonorities of the characters’ names – Morf, Josephina, Rhodora, Gretchen, Dondon, Coco, Vetril – act as words of art that aesthetically enhance their personalities.
Art has a life of its own and seeks expression, it cannot be repressed, controlled or explained. The question remains, then, can these concerns be extrapolated to Velvet Buzzsaw itself? Should it be reviewed and made to fit within the parameters of analysis? Since ‘critique is so limiting and emotionally draining’, as Morf says, is it relevant to enclose the film within the brackets of criticism?
These are the questions Velvet Buzzsaw leaves us grappling with. It is frustrating, denying us clear-cut answers, making us ruminate on our approach to art. Under the veneer of a conclusive ending, the narrative leaves many open-ended possibilities that a critic can only propose to the reader.