Director: Dan Gilroy
Writer: Dan Gilroy
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Collette, Zawe Ashton, John Malkovich
As horror concepts go, the one which forms Velvet Buzzsaw, a darkly humorous new thriller/horror released on Netflix, is perhaps one of the most intriguingly unique of recent years. After her elusive neighbour is found dead, Josephina (Ashton) proceeds to take and display his artwork at her fiery boss's exclusive gallery, unaware that each painting conceals a deadly secret.
The film is different from the start. Unlike many other horror/thrillers, Velvet Buzzsaw is constantly bright and spacious, preferring to live in the light rather than the dark. Brightly lit and colourful art galleries, and luxurious west coast penthouses make up many of the film's locations, as we follow the horror story of a particularly lofty social class. Don't fear alienation though, as although the film's cast are far removed from the trials and tribulations of the majority of society, Velvet Buzzsaw keeps its tongue firmly in its cheek right the way though.
The many colourful characters in Velvet Buzzsaw are the butt of the joke, rather than the tellers, with the whole film being a hilarious parody of critiqing culture. This film demands not to be taken seriously. Running throughout is an outrageously pretentious and expertly delivered dialogue which creates a bizarre reality, and allows the characters to be far removed from the one we live in, concealed within their own social bubble. It brings with it a healthy level of daftness which fulfils the darkly comedic element... but it comes with a payoff; the flip-side of this distance means that it can be difficult to connect with any of the characters. It is difficult to share in their terror, or feel overly concerned for their well-being even in the moments of tension, leaving the viewer with no one to root for.
As a horror, therefore, Velvet Buzzsaw is less effective, not quite managing to blend the two genres together. Its kill scenes are certainly interesting and inventive, but are typically mild and rarely conjure any sense of dread. Its (rather late in the game) supernatural theme feels flimsy, propped up by little other than a couple of clichés and the (perhaps foolish) assumption that the audience won't be expecting any sort of intricate explanation.
Gyllenhaal continues to prove his astounding versatility, his Morf Vandewalt being one of his most absorbing and transformative roles yet, serving as a perfect caricature of the culture of critique. It's a world away from any of his previous roles, and he obviously relishes the opportunity to step out into something a little more eccentric. His Morf remains a grounded and believable character however, his eloquent and melodramatic delivery of the audacious dialogue being consistently hilarious without veering too far into silliness or absurdity.
Zawe Ashton also demonstrates some shocking versatility as the ambitious Josephina, who is a million miles away from the abrasive and drug-addled Vod from Fresh Meat* (2011-2016). She is afforded one of the few meaningful character arcs, and is certainly the most accessible character, starting life in the film as an underdog entering the apparently cut-throat world of artistic expression.
Collette is similarly fantastic but disastrously underused, her scenes ending way before she is allowed an opportunity to display her character. There are hints at a ruthlessness to her straight-talking Gretchen, but they remain hints, never really being confirmed as fact. It's a similar story with Malkovich, given far from enough to make his character at all memorable except for an apparent but unexplained disdain for everyone and everything else in the film. Despite wielding big names and hot property, Velvet Buzzsaw struggles to use some of its many assets to their full potential.
Velvet Buzzsaw is a slick and polished dark comedy turning the world of subjective criticism into a joke with a punchline delivered by a superb cast. It won't immerse you, nor will it terrify you, but an array of wonderfully eccentric and feisty performances makes this film magnetic and thoroughly enjoyable.
In one line: An exceptionally funny dialogue and a collection of wonderfully expressive characters makes up for Velvet Buzzsaw's less than substantial story-line.
*A fantastically crude comedy documenting the highs and come-downs of University life in the UK.