Film Review | Velvet Buzzsaw: Yet another Netflix letdown

Jake Gyllenhall and Rene Russo re-unite with ‘Nightcrawler’ writer-director Dan Gilroy for a satire that swerves into Netflix mediocrity all too soon

Critique is so limiting Jake Gyllenhall and Rene Russo attempt to puzzle out the mystery of an alluring outsider artist in this appealing but inconsistent art-world satire-cum-horror film
Critique is so limiting Jake Gyllenhall and Rene Russo attempt to puzzle out the mystery of an alluring outsider artist in this appealing but inconsistent art-world satire-cum-horror film

The existence of ‘Netflix Originals’ films – which now boasts even the likes of the Coen brothers among their number – has appeared like a bolt in the blue to cut through the swathe of superhero-burdened mainstream blockbusters that infect the multiplexes.

Existing in parallel to the new age of high-quality serialised television, they dangle the promise of both artistic freedom and relevance to contemporary filmmakers, otherwise forced to resign themselves to relative arthouse obscurity, or co-option into a system that’s mainly interested in making films based on comic books and bestselling young adult book series.

However, the streaming service’s track record of original feature-length film has so far proven to be patchy at best, even when the biggest names in the industry are drafted into the stable… presumably in an attempt to bolster the artistic legitimacy of this relatively newfangled endeavour. Unfortunately, the promising (re) team-up of writer-director Dan Gilroy with actors Jake Gyllenhall and Rene Russo, following their crackling collaboration on Nightcrawler (2014) is a further black mark to Netflix’s working methods, offering up a patchy take on a story that otherwise bristles with raw potential.

Hobbled as he may be by the grotesque name that announces him, bisexual art critic Morf Vandewalt (Gyllenhall) is not, after all, too unusual a specimen in his kooky though rarefied social and professional  circle: that of LA’s contemporary art scene, whose queen bees are gallery impresarios Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) and Gretchen (Toni Collette).

Smooching and backstabbing their way up the social ladder – superficially using art as a stepping stone all the while – our swarm of snarling vultures are always on the prowl for the next big thing… until one day, it emerges from the literal ashes of the neighbouring apartment of Josephina (Zawe Ashton), who discovers its reclusive occupant after he drops dead in the hallway, to reveal an apartment full of startling outsider art.

But as Morf and Josephina set about to uncover the provenance of these startling paintings to ascertain their value, the works begin to trigger an unsettling chain of events.

Satires of the top echelons of the art world always make for a fun watch, because who doesn’t appreciate a skewering of a class so up themselves as the pretentious purveyors and cynical speculators who make up that rarefied scene?

But this latest salvo from Gilroy – who certainly proved he could handle dark satire with the Gyllenhall-starring gutter-media takedown Nightcrawler – fails to wring all the juice from its concept, largely as a result of what appears to be the inherent sloppiness of the Netflix model. With far too many characters to juggle and a final act that operates on a facile, barely established swerve into the supernatural, the film feels like it’s finished before it can even begin.

Thankfully, the script is laced with a prolonged, consistent sting… Gilroy has a talent for the amoral, bitchy but appealing character, line and motif. A recurring gag involving Natalia Dyer from Stranger Things – here playing Coco, a lamb-to-the-slaughter assistant – is blackly amusing, and Toni Collette continues her post-Hereditary winning streak by going full bitch with Gretchen; dressed and dyed in deceptively shimmering white, with a pearly rictus to match.

The verdict

With a script rich in appealing take-downs and barbs of a social subset that’s incredibly easy to hate, and an inherently appealing core concept that brims with potential, Velvet Buzzsaw never quite rises to the occasion, delivering a messily put-together product that in the end simply goes through the motions when it should be twisting and dazzling at every turn.