Velvet Buzzsaw in the neck

This review contains spoilers for every painful detail of the movie Velvet Buzzsaw, which is now on Netflix. You have been warned.

There’s a trend in media that I mentally wrestle with. The “is it or isn’t it self-aware” media, the movies and shows that almost seem like they’re making fun of their genre or theme, but you’re not quite sure whether that’s true, or whether you’re just trying to explain its reason for existence.

Velvet Buzzsaw is clear that it’s trying to make fun of pretentious art-types. But what about horror?

The premise is paper-thin, a common thread among most horror movies. In Velvet Buzzsaw, a woman steals a collection of paintings that her dead artist/murderer neighbor wanted destroyed upon his passing. Instead, she decides to profit. So naturally, the paintings get real murdery.

Our players:

  • Jake Gyllenhaal as Morf (seriously), an art critic who has drunk the Kool-Aid of pretentious art bullshit. He believes he lives and breathes being a critic, but it’s quickly apparent that he really just lives and breathes being a judgy bitch. Collections live and die by his word, and he loves making his judgements. He cheats on his partner with Josephina, who he believes he is in love with, but who seems kinda tepid on him, tbh.
  • Zawe Ashton as Josephina, who works at an art gallery. She finds the body of her dead neighbor in the stairwell and in her trauma, decides to snoop around about him. She learns that everything in his apartment is set to be destroyed, per his wishes. She has heard his cat meowing, and the building super says that he’ll check on it in the morning. Josephina goes to the door and finds it unlocked, so she goes in. That’s when she discovers the paintings (which, for fake art, are actually pretty remarkable). They are creepy and they are many. They were destined for the dumpster, so she feels the need to save them – and profit, natch. She later dates an artist who prefers to work in a smaller collective of street artists, which she turns her nose up at.
  • Rene Russo as Rhodora, the former-punk-cum-art-gallery-owner-and-artist-rep who is terrible to Josephina until Josephina shows up with a bunch of really sellable art. Rhodora used to be in this band, called Velvet Buzzsaw (they said it!) and she has a tattoo of a circular saw blade with the band’s name on her neck. It seems as if she genuinely cares about art (she keeps on a client/artist – John Malkovich – who is going through a literal dry spell after getting sober) but that doesn’t stop her from committing a bit of art fraud, intentionally lying about how many pieces of the murder art exists so they can maximize profit.
  • Toni Collette as Gretchen, who is only noteworthy because she does a fantastic portrayal of an art world hang-on, someone who inserts themself into it because she must, to be interesting. This succeeds in making her one of the more interesting side characters.

So, apparently pissed off that it’s out in the world and not living its best life inside the home of the murderous painter who created them, the paintings start killing people. Credit where it’s due: the CG for the paintings coming to life is delightful, artistic and imaginative. It’s also sometimes confusing and disorienting. Again, the is it or isn’t it thing. Is it meant to be dreamy and otherworldly, or is it just noise? (That’s art, babey!)

But can I tell you where I feel most conflicted on this one? It feels like the movie spends a lot of its runtime establishing the characters and their interpersonal conflicts. Who is a bitch, who is a rival of whom, what they’ve been like in their careers. Whether this is to establish that the characters deserve their deaths or just to poke a little more fun at the art world, I can’t tell – is it or isn’t it? 

I need you to understand that the paintings and painter are a million times more interesting than any of the characters that this movie follows. But horror movies aren’t about who’s interesting: horror movies are designed to punish and torture, and that’s what Velvet Buzzsaw does. Just maybe not in the way it should.

Velvet Buzzsaw is clear that it’s trying to make fun of pretentious art-types. But what about horror?

Mort, in a moment of either professional opportunism or actual clarity, decides that he’s going to write a book about the artist behind the paintings. It’s revealed that there is actual blood mixed in with the pigments. It’s revealed that Dease, the painter, came from an unhappy, abusive childhood that resulted in the murder of his father. That rolled into him becoming a factory worker of some sort (could he really afford that apartment. Doubt!) and occasional murderer.

These details are tantalizing, something a typical horror movie would make noise about. Even among horror movies that decide where the monster comes from doesn’t matter get that playing up the mythos does help establish some fear. But Velvet Buzzsaw doesn’t care if you’re afraid or not. It doesn’t seem to want to scare you. It’s easy to miss these spooky details, tossed out like breadcrumbs under an unstoppable bus, and the movie doesn’t care to pick them up later. Instead, Velvet Buzzsaw plays more like a parable: respect art or get got.

That’s not a very entertaining message. It’s not even a message most of the audience really needs to take to heart. I mean, we’re still here, aren’t we?

Can I spoil the ending for you, and where the title comes into play? (Skip this paragraph if you’re screeching no.) Rhodora catches onto the fact that art is out to kill anyone who profited from these paintings. As an art gallery owner, her home is filled with art. When a giant sculpture nearly crushes her, she calls in movers to remove every piece of art in her home. She sits down on the pavers in her yard in a tableau right out of the paintings. But alas! She has forgotten about one piece of artwork: her shitty saw blade band tattoo, which does what it’s made to do.

Should you watch it? If the character types intrigue you, if you want to see Jake Gyllenhaal in one of his most deliciously annoying roles, if you want to see Tony Collette get murdered by something that I’m pretty sure is full of dildos, if you just want to experience something a little visually tricky… then yes, by all means, have at it.

But if you’re looking for actual horror? I’m not sure this movie thinks it is a horror movie.

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