It's always disappointing when the best stuff is shown in the trailer. Velvet Buzzsaw, despite its killer name, killer director, and killer lead actor, is pretty disappointingly tame. It's a horror satire of the art world and its obsession with value that has no idea how to build suspense. The ideas are there, the thrills are not.
Maybe I expected too much from director Dan Gilroy, who made the disturbing Nightcrawler five years ago. Velvet Buzzsaw seemed like a Lynchian nightmare. Some of it is. It's set in the contoured world of modern art where galleries and museums make the characters ornaments of sort. They're all dressed dazzlingly and they're all hollow inside. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a bisexual critic whose opinions have made him powerful, a development that's made him arrogant in that splendid Otho style. He also has a weird name, like Otho: Morf Vandewalt.
Morf is at the center of Velvet Buzzsaw along with the art world and an assortment of beautiful, well-spoken creatures. His agent, Josephine (Zawe Ashton), is also the object of his current state of lust so they embark on an affair. At home, Josephine discovers her dead neighbor's apartment is full of art treasures that could net millions and secure her career. One thing: The dead guy, Vetril Dease, left a note saying to destroy everything. Josephine ignores that, of course, and soon Dease is the hottest name around. "Visionary," says Morf.
Gallery owner Rhodora (Rene Russo) makes a deal with Josephine to distribute Dease's paintings and everyone in her orbit is seduced. Established artists like Piers (John Malkovich) and rising stars like Damrish (Daveed Diggs) are equally in awe of Dease. But people start dying. An aspiring artist is beaten and another gallery owner is found hanged. Dease's artwork is coming alive and soon works by other artists follow, as well as more deaths.
The audience is in on every kill scene but the characters can't unravel the mystery. It's both satisfying and frustrating that they're all intolerably smug. It's fun watching obnoxious characters get killed, but emotional investment is sacrificed. There's no lead character to root for. Morf leads the first act but gives way to Josephine, Rhodora, and others as the film goes on. None of them are likable besides Coco (Natalia Dyer from Stranger Things), who's a fledgling assistant, innocent, and deserving of a lead role. She only appears briefly.
The story is shallow as in most horror movies, but the thrills escape Velvet Buzzsaw also. Death scenes happen quickly and vanish, giving way to banal expositions about Dease's history or pretentious chatter about art. The overcooked satire is anything but subtle. More attention to the terror is needed. When death comes, it's over too soon. Velvet Buzzsaw is horror without the suspense.
The Price of Everything gave us an insider's look at the world of expensive modern art last year and Velvet Buzzsaw knows its stuff. Malkovich plays a version of Jeff Koons and seeming homages to other artists like Damien Hirst and Vincent Castiglia color the production design. Gilroy is a talented filmmaker and a meticulous one. He's got a great idea (even though he stole it from Ghostbusters II). His script just feels rushed. Unlike the art world, in suspense, it's all about what you don't see.