The art installation, so often a playground in the contemporary art museum, is in Dan Gilroy’s gloriously gory satire “Velvet Buzzsaw” a terror chamber. Interactivity is involuntary.
“Velvet Buzzsaw ,” which opens on the Art Basel Miami Beach fair, assembles a glittering gallery of art-world snobs, strivers and divas. A cocktail of critics, collectors, buyers and even a couple actual artists, it’s the kind of easy-target collection that Christopher Guest might have taken aim at.
But Gilroy, who memorably skewered “if it bleeds, it leads” TV news in “Nightcrawler,” has something darker, or at least bloodier in mind. In “Velvet Buzzsaw,” when a painting fetches a “killing” at auction, the payoff might be literal, and any subsequent shredding is going to be a lot more sinister than anything cooked up by Banksy.
Among them are Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal), a power-wielding critic, “god” in this designer-label universe; Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), a big-time dealer whose old nickname is both the film’s title and the tattoo on her shoulder; buyer Gretchen (Toni Collette), who can manipulate private buyers and museums, alike; a pair of painters, one a graffiti artist sensation (Daveed Diggs), the other a sullen has-been who has turned his studio into a profitable assembly line (John Malkovich); and Josephina (Zawe Ashton), a struggling protegee to Haze.
It’s on Josephina that the plot turns. When an elderly neighbor named Ventril Dease dies, she stumbles upon the paintings that litter his apartment, and quickly realizes it’s a major discovery. She swipes them all before they’re to be tossed in the garbage. When she shows them to Vandewalt, with whom she’s sleeping, he immediately pronounces the paintings “visionary.”
The whole transactional system goes into overdrive to posthumously turn Dease into a major artist and, more importantly, into an industry. The million-dollar sales are orchestrated, the Los Angeles museum show strong-armed, the paintings carefully parceled to stimulate just the right amount of demand. Vandewalt gets book rights.
The paintings themselves we take for the genuine article. Unlike the frivolous installations that flitter through “Velvet Buzzsaw” (like a metallic sphere that emits various sensations when you stick your hand into its holes), Dease’s works, deemed “outsider art,” represent something “substantial” in a shallow contemporary art world. Only Josephine knows that Dease, whose murky past is slowly revealed, had wished his artwork destroyed. At first merely creepy (we learn his reds were painted in blood), figures in the paintings begin to subtly move, snatch and kill.
In vivid slasher vignettes, everyone who has cynically capitalized on Dease’s art works gets their comeuppance, many of them at a gallery late at night. “All art is dangerous,” says Haze before quite realizing how right she is.
Are there certain ironies that this satire of the commodification of art should come in a film that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival (the premiere auction house for independent film), a film that will be streamed by Netflix (where algorithms strictly govern a film’s monetary value), and one that’s penned by a filmmaker with credits including “Kong: Skull Island” and “Real Steel”?
Sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a lot of fun. Gilroy’s set-piece slaughters are expertly executed old-school camp, some of them laugh-out-loud funny. Maybe not since “Peeping Tom” have scenes of art and murder been so closely synthesized. That film, of course, had much more on its mind and posed more disquieting questions for its audience. “Velvet Buzzsaw” doesn’t lead anywhere inward; it becomes just a litany of (exquisite) death scenes for art-world caricatures.
Still, what caricatures they are. Especially good is Gyllenhaal’s Vandewalt, a paragon of pretention whose pompous demeanor steadily crumbles. “Listen to my intelligent mind,” he tells Josephina, reaching perhaps the very mountaintop of mansplaining. He’s a masterpiece.
“Velvet Buzzsaw,” a Netflix release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for violence, language, some sexuality/nudity and brief drug use. Running time: 113 minutes. Three stars out of four.