“Velvet Buzzsaw” is about as subtle as it’s namesake. The Netflix film is a brutal condemnation of the way capitalism reduces genuine art into lifeless dollar signs. Yet, when the blood starts to splatter the walls like a Pollock painting, the film loses much of its edge.
Buzzsaw’s premise is certainly unique: the high and mighty art world, utterly divorced from reality, is punished by the very art that they curate, package and sell to the highest bidder.
When gallery assistant Josephina (Zawe Ashton) steals the work of a deceased, reclusive and unknown artist, she and gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) sell the work for millions with the help of feared critic Morf Valdewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal).
“Buzzsaw” spends its entire first half setting up the characters as being fundamentally unlikeable. The entire cast of characters are primarily money-obsessed, pretentious narcissists who you can’t wait to see dragged down from their lofty perches of high art into the grime of the film’s second half.
The paintings turn out to be haunted (of course), and created with the artist’s own blood. The work exacts gruesome revenge on all those who profit from it.
Every actor in the film, including Toni Collette as a predatory art buyer who oscillates between saccharin and sadistic, and Tom Surridge as a tasteless hack, embodies their character perfectly. Both actors deliver deliciously over the top lines with barely restrained glee.
Grounding the insanity are Daveed Diggs as Damrish, an up-and-coming street artist new to the scene, and Natalia Dyer’s Coco, a hapless assistant who can’t seem to catch a break.
Dyer in particular provides many of the film’s best moments as her comparative innocence butts up against the art world’s cutthroat politics and supernatural shenanigans.
However, it’s Gyllenhaal who steals the show. Everything about his character from his exaggerated confidence to his critique of a funeral reflects his massive ego, disregard for others and disdain for anything that falls short of his lofty standards.
It’s disappointing then that once the ghosts get going, Morf and the gang lose much of their charm. Rather than providing dramatic exits for these colorful characters, the scenes are disappointingly foreseeable.
The premises of each kill are interesting enough, from a living tattoo to a chrome sphere acting as a cuisinart; there is some real imagination at play. This level of creativity is exactly why it is such a shame that when the paintings begin to wreak havoc, the film begins to embody a paint-by-numbers level of predictability.
Each execution feels like checking off a box on a list, rather than something exciting, horrifying or even funny. They each follow a very basic pattern and lack the sharp wit and deviousness of the rest of the film.
That is, with the exception of one that falls toward the conclusion in the only moment the film fully realizes its twisted premise in a scene that is as hilarious as it is horrifying.
“Buzzsaw” doesn’t fall off entirely after the first half concludes. Much of the dark humor remains, and Gyllenhaal’s descent into madness as he unravels the mystery is delightfully manic.
His intensity as “Buzzsaw” nears its climax and rivals actors like Nicholas Cage at his most insane. These scenes alone make the film worth a watch.
If you’re looking for terror you should look elsewhere, but if you want a black comedy held up by great performances, you could do a lot worse than “Velvet Buzzsaw.”