Art is objective. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, but yet in a weird, meta way does the fact that I’m really finding it hard to big up Velvet Buzzsaw perhaps mean I’m just like any of the awful, pretentious characters in this film?
Why didn’t I like this film that I am seeing mostly positive reviews for? Did I just not ‘get it’? Perhaps it’s because my expectations were so high? The last time Dan Gilroy, Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo teamed up it was for Nightcrawler, which was just brilliant. I was expecting more of the same. It’s not. Pegged as a Horror/Comedy, I assumed it would be blacker than black, turns out it was glaringly obvious and as in your face as a Jackson Pollock piece.
But it’s certainly not your typical horror and yes, I realize how contradictory I sound. It starts out looking like a smirking satire of the modern-art world; devious gallery owners, a pompous critic, embarrassingly try-hard artists, and many more pretentious stereotypes all telling each other how brilliant they are, while bitching about them behind their back and looking for the next big thing or any other way to get themselves ahead in the business. Of course, these people they hate and use are their only friends.
Then fate comes to the door of one of the clique, Josephina (Zawe Ashton). At first, I thought she was going to be our heroine, the ‘final girl’ and a character with some redeeming qualities. That wasn’t to be the case. After finding the body of her neighbour on the landing of their apartment building which in turn makes her late for work, she is fired by her boss, Gallery owner and former member of the punk band Velvet Buzzsaw, Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo). Turns out her dead neighbour, Vetril Dease, was an artist of magnificent talent and his whole apartment was secretly filled with his creations, plus he had no friends or family to pass it on to—result for Josephina! However, it was his dying wish that all of his work be destroyed and that no-one should have possession of it (except him, as in literally possessing it in a supernatural sense). As if Josephina would give two hoots about the wishes of a dead stranger, (I doubt she’d respect the wishes her own dead mother) and so, with vengeance and one-upsmanship on her mind, the rush for her to climb the ladder of the art world and to profit from the dead man’s art begins. News travels quickly within the bubble they exist – everyone wants a piece of this pie and will die for it.
That’s when the film takes a bit of a surprising turn and goes full Slasher movie but without a real protagonist. We do learn a little about Vetril Dease as Vandewalt assigns himself to a project researching his life. He learns that Dease’s mother and sister died in a fire when he was a boy, and after serving in the war, he brutally murdered his abusive father, after which he was institutionalized in a high-security psychiatric hospital for most of his life. Upon release, he became a recluse. But that’s it, we don’t get to know the man behind the paintings any more than that. The manner of the killings isn’t meant to be unraveled like some puzzle box, the lack of conclusion given to Dease’s story is proof of that. There’s no foreboding masked figure like Jason Voorhees or Mike Myers here, or a signature style. The art itself is the stalker, taking over whatever medium it wants; paintings, sculptures, even a robot exhibit. All the awful people are picked off one by one in a variety of ways, but man, this is really could have been done so much better.
It doesn’t quite reach the dizzy heights of Final Destination as it would like but borrows some elements such as the total inevitability of the deaths, the “no mercy, no escape” aesthetic and the darkly comic tone to the way in which they die. I’ll always be the first to argue that Horror films—especially those with a ghostly protagonist—should leave more to the imagination, but that really doesn’t work within the Slasher film blueprint. What we get here is a film with absolutely no tension. No, we don’t care who dies as they are all terrible people, so they have that trope down pat, but we just can’t relate to these people at all. We’ve all been the horny teenagers and have smoked and got drunk underage, so we’d all be ripe pickings for Jason and The Shape would want to kill every last one of us, but that’s not the theme here. This apparently undefeatable foe would have no interest in us, so it’s just not scary.
What should happen next to at least keep us entertained, is the massacre of all these characters in a grotesque and hilarious manner. Yes, they all die creatively but we barely see anything happen at all, we just hear their deaths as the shot pans away. I’m not missing the point here, I know that this is art – I know that my interpretation of what happens to them will be different from the next persons. I am not ghoulish. I don’t particularly enjoy watching people being butchered, but that is part of what Horror is—experiencing something so over the top and out of the realms of reality that you can’t help but laugh. Velvet Buzzsaw is over the top in all the wrong ways—the intentionally camp overacting, the implausible storyline, the silly effects of faces in paintings moving, grease monkeys coming to life—the kind of thing last seen in A Night at The Museum and Ghostbusters 2. The victims barely even put up a fight! What fun is a Slasher when the hunted barely run a few feet before dying off-screen?
Maybe I’m not supposed to take it seriously as a Horror, and the supernatural element is not what Velvet Buzzsaw is about at all. The message we’re receiving like a brick to the face is that we should appreciate art for art’s sake, and not look at it as simply something to be dealt in. It doesn’t take itself too seriously in this regard and yet it has a point. When Josephina finally meets her colourful end, it’s at a gallery full of graffiti art- a medium she just can’t appreciate as it can’t be bought or sold. And so, just moments after peering down her nose at artist and new lover, Damrish (Daveed Diggs) for leaving her swanky gallery and choosing to stay with the reps who really love his work, paint comes to life and leaves its canvas to attack her, creeps through her skin, overtaking her body until she is embalmed alive into a multicoloured piece of street art that can’t be bought. Banksy would be so proud.
Josephina’s former lover, Vandewalt is murdered by the Hobo Man he panned at an earlier exhibition – just desserts for the man who ruins lives with his toxic words you might say. Though he was the only person trying to make things right, Dease didn’t care though clearly, an eye for an eye. Vandewalt’s death feels a little lacklustre considering the complexities of his character. Gyllenhaal’s performance, which I must admit was brilliant, makes him a forceful, compelling figure, even when he isn’t a sympathetic one. Vandewalt knows what he wants, and chases it without scruples yet he still comes across as deeply engaged with the art he’s critiquing. Dease’s art truly moves him – buries into his psyche causing him to hallucinate and even question whether he’s developing Charles Bonnet Syndrome. Unlike the other characters, he feels some remorse for his actions.
Gretchen was far and above my favourite character in the film. Once again, Toni Collette knocks it out of the park performance wise, the whole cast does to be fair, you can tell they really had fun playing these outrageous characters. Collette, however hammy her performance, was still believable—the one character with an ounce of realism. Her death led to the only laugh-out-loud moment for me, especially in the aftermath as a class of school children danced in her blood spilt across the gallery floor, everyone assuming her arm-less corpse was just part of the sphere exhibit.
At the end, Rhodora is still standing, just about. She listens to Vandewalt’s warning that it’s Dease’s art that’s killing their clan. She thinks she can survive by having every single piece of art removed from her house. But as she sits outside watching the sun, her Sphynx cat (a breed created for it looks alone) scurries up to her in a position reminiscent of the piece of Dease art that was hanging in her house. Art is everywhere, you can’t escape it. It’s at that moment that the Velvet Buzzsaw tattoo on her shoulder comes to life and starts spinning into her body until she explodes into a fountain of blood. She’s killed by a symbol of the band she turned her back on—the only time she used any of her own artistic expression.
The only survivors are Coco (Natalie Dyer) the assistant who has an unfortunate knack of finding every dead body, Damrish, the artist who refused to sell out, and Piers (John Malkovich, seemingly playing John Malkovich again) an artist who had lost all his inspiration but finds it again on a beach where he draws endless circles that will be washed into the sea where no one can claim it as theirs. And that is totally the point of this film. Art should be free for everyone to see, it shouldn’t be coveted away in the homes of millionaires, for no-one else to enjoy.
Dease literally used his own blood, sweat and tears to create his art which may explain his posthumous power over people. I wish more had been made of this. Despite all the characters being out for themselves, everyone who looked at his paintings instantly recognised their artistic worth before pivoting their interest into their financial value. It is frustrating that the film spends so little time considering why, or how their engagement in his work changes the story. The art physically came from inside Dease, he was part of it, so who has the right to determine how good it is but him? No-one of course, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have our opinions on art either, sometimes we just have to understand that not enjoying something does not make it bad, it just means it’s not our taste. Like my thoughts on this film.
The setting Gilroy creates here is so much more engaging than what he does with it. Much like Dease did, he builds a compelling world, only so he can burn it down. As we come full circle I’ll say once again that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure and thankfully, my opinion doesn’t matter anywhere near enough to ruin anyone’s career or shatter the confidence of a director such as Dan Gilroy, so I might just live to see another day.