Horror and comedy have been a winning combination for countless previous films, yet here Gilroy’s lack of experience with either genre is painfully obvious. The satire of contemporary art culture comprising most of VELVET BUZZSAW’s first act is not only limited to recycled jokes (we get it, critics are shallow and pretentious), but also surprisingly tame: when the stock standard bitchy critic character (Jake Gyllenhaal’s Morf) is harsher than the script, it should be a clear indication that the film’s edge needs sharpening. Morf and his fellow art snobs uncover a treasure trove of paintings by a recently deceased, unknown artist named Vetril Dease, who quickly becomes the latest sensation. However, this newfound fame is contrary to Dease’s instructions for his work to be destroyed, leading to anyone who profits from it suffering a grim fate at the hands of vengeful art. If that sounds vague, it’s only because Gilroy never actually provides any explanation for these supernatural occurrences. Viewers are left with no clue as to how Dease ostensibly placed a curse on his work, nor how the spirit can control any art, not just his paintings. Due to this sheer lack of internal logic, the ensuing plot is impossible to care about; indeed, almost every death scene becomes ludicrous, and funnier than the intended moments of comedy.
Meanwhile, the impressive cast Gilroy has assembled largely feels underutilised, particularly in light of his previous work. From Gyllenhaal’s career-best turn in Nightcrawler to the pleasant surprise of Denzel Washington in Roman J. Israel, Esq., Gilroy has shown a talent for crafting roles which subvert our expectations of well-known performers. By contrast, VELVET BUZZSAW’s shallow approach leaves its characters treading water; that is, half-heartedly exchanging snarky comments until the horror takes centre stage, at which point they are given nothing to do but react.
The exception to this is John Malkovich’s Piers, who instead vanishes from the film for its entire second half. Although Piers is hardly the lead role prior to his sudden absence, the flimsy explanation offered is unsatisfying and was yet another obstacle to my investment in the plot. Very MILD Spoiler alert: there is one final scene featuring Piers that plays during the credits, though it’s completely disconnected from previous events, an inexplicable decision which is arguably perfect for such a baffling film. VELVET BUZZSAW is a perfect example of biting off more than you can chew. Despite everything I’ve said here, I think it could’ve worked with a greater willingness to embrace the genres it claims to blend. Unfortunately, much like the art at its centre, it’s pretty but unlikely to be remembered. Watch (or rewatch) Nightcrawler instead.