Mixing horror with art, director Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler,” “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”) created a unique cerebral thriller with “Velvet Buzzsaw,” released Feb. 1, that breaks away from the traditional norms of the horror genre, but falls flat with jargony dialogue.
Following the death of an undiscovered master painter, the paths of art critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal), art gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) and Josephina (Zawe Ashton), an assistant on the rise to fame, diverge. With an untapped fortune in artwork at their fingertips, Vandewalt begins to notice the deaths and disappearances of workers and colleagues. Gilroy, Gyllenhaal and Russo worked together on “Nightcrawler” as well.
“Velvet Buzzsaw” replaces the crazed killer trope present in most horror movies with the killer paintings of an insane artist. This difference pays off well, as characters aren’t reduced to horrified victims and are more developed than just romantic relationships, which can become common for a horror flick. Instead, each character is given depth and personality.
This depth is seen mostly in Vandewalt. He starts with it all: a buzzing career, money to burn and the opportunity to make it even bigger, but it’s contrasted by a crumbled relationship and deep sadness underneath it all. By the end of the movie, Vandewalt becomes a different character.
Josephina also changes throughout the movie. Beginning as a tardy secretary looking for her own place in the art world, she has become fully absorbed by the fame she gains and the power she has by the end of the movie.
Haze is the final person who sees a major change in character. She begins the film as a famous art gallery owner intent on cashing in the fame the paintings can grant her, but begins to rethink her actions by the end of the movie.
As a movie centered around art, the cinematography doesn’t skimp on its artistic ambitions. Alongside the paintings and other art pieces, characters and setpieces are used almost as sculptures of their own. Naked bodies are used as artistic expression rather than sex appeal and even explicit scenes have a somewhat deliberate approach. These aspects meld together to create a visually compelling experience.
The art itself jumps between contemporary and traditional. Contemporary pieces range from low-tech light signs to high-tech AI robots, while traditional pieces are represented by paintings made by the master painter.
Even with the obvious creative effort in the film, “Velvet Buzzsaw” focuses on creating a visual experience that doesn’t translate well into dialogue. Character conversations become a slew of insider jargon, and specific terms require viewers to listen more than they may care to. With other thrillers such as “Shutter Island” requiring thought while keeping dialogue simple, some scenes of “Velvet Buzzsaw” can come off as too esoteric.
The overall tone of the characters can be off-putting as well. With many characters being part of the artistic elite, viewers can feel as if they’re getting a nose turnt-up at them. Apple and Starbucks product placement aside, “Velvet Buzzsaw” can make viewers sad after looking at the paltry sum in their bank accounts.
The new approach to horror taken by “Velvet Buzzsaw” is interesting, however, its overall enjoyment-factor is impacted by jargony dialogue and character interactions that can only be described as “snooty.”
“Velvet Buzzsaw” is available to watch on Netflix.