The art world is notoriously classist and money-driven. Controlled by a small group of dealers, art critics are often less driven by the quality of the art in front of them and more by how many dollar signs pop out at them. This is part of the reason why it is so hard for young artists to break into the business -- in addition to being a highly competitive, highly saturated market, the subjectivity of the art world is poisoned by the greed of those who guard its doorway.
Velvet Buzzsaw immediately presents itself as a scathing indictment of these kinds of art critics and dealers. They are vain and selfish; they are more than satisfied to give a bad review to an artist out of personal spite, and will just as easily exploit a dead man's work for profit, even when he has asked for his work to be destroyed.
It's this central theme that drives the majority of the film (even the more surreal, horror-driven aspects of it) and I can see what Dan Gilroy is trying to do. By contrasting the modernist, sleek world of these rich dealers and critics with the grungy, eerie work of a dead hermit (and the effect the latter's work ends up having on the former) is inherently an interesting concept. It's also one that is easy to convolute. Unfortunately that is what has happened here.
Parallels will be made to Nightcrawler, though I don't think such comparisons are fair. While both films serve as searing condemnations of practices in their respective fields, I think Velvet Buzzsaw is more ambitious. It attempts to embrace its own peculiar oddities to such an extent that they lose their visual value. It can also be difficult to wrap one's head around Gilroy's visual style and the goal of his narrative. While it's easy to see what he's trying to say, how he's trying to say it also tends to hamper the film's overall quality. So, in other words, Velvet Buzzsaw deserves accolades for its sheer ambition, but it's that ambition that hurts the film in the end.
There's some really good stuff in Velvet Buzzsaw, and it's presented with a zany, effervescent charm that seems to come to Gilroy effortlessly. Jake Gyllenhaal's performance is great, and the supporting cast is impressive as well, even if some of those folks are extremely underutilized. However, at the end of the day your enjoyment of the film will greatly depend on how much you buy into the surrealistic aspects of the narrative, especially once the film reveals its head-scratching conclusion.
“VELVET BUZZSAW” ★★★
written and directed by DAN GILROY
Rated R || 112 MIN || Released 1 February 2019