Velvet Buzzsaw Is One of Netflix’s Strangest and Best Original Movies Yet

UNTITLED DAN GILROY FILM

Who doesn’t love dark and cynical movies about Los Angeles? If such a person exists, I hope I never meet them. Screenwriter-turned-filmmaker Dan Gilroy has proven to be an idiosyncratic master of this subgenre; one day, maybe they’ll let him direct the gritty Sunset Boulevard remake of the 2020s. Velvet Buzzsaw, a postmodern horror-comedy set in the art world, which premieres on Netflix today, is Gilroy’s third bleak L.A. film. Like Nightcrawler, his seamy and gripping directorial debut, and Roman J. Israel, Esq., its somewhat formless follow-up, Velvet Buzzsaw is a movie about obsession spiraling out of control. Unlike the other two films, its color palette is vibrant, and its dominant tone is campy heightened realism. Gilroy’s unapologetic devotion to this singular mode in Velvet Buzzsaw makes it his most daring and bizarre film yet, and a contender for the most inspired original feature Netflix has yet produced.

Velvet Buzzsaw’s depiction of the rarefied sectors of L.A. where most of the action takes place is both rigorous and farcical. Gilroy introduces nearly his entire cast in the first 15 minutes of the movie, with an unassuming deftness befitting an experienced screenwriter, and a sense of humor recalling Robert Altman. Gilroy has compared his film to The Player, and Buzzsaw’s overstuffed first scene feels like an explicit call-out to Altman’s whimsical 1988 noir. We watch Jake Gyllenhaal’s self-important critic Mort Vanderwalt survey every piece in a gallery full of artists and socialites, breezily establishing his relationship with every major player in the movie.

It seems at first that Vanderwalt, who believes he “furthers the realm” of art as a whole with his blogged analyses, will be at the center of Velvet Buzzsaw’s action, but he doesn’t remain there for long. By a stroke of perverse luck, his gallerist love interest Josephine (Zawe Ashton) comes across a trove of uncannily powerful art in the apartment of a recently deceased artist named Ventril Dease, who lived in near-total obscurity. Josephine’s boss Rhodora (Rene Russo) pushes her to plunder Dease’s apartment full of grubby scrolls for everything it’s worth, disregarding the artist’s request that all of his work be destroyed when he died. The discovery of Dease’s collection sets in motion a vicious cycle of greed, deception, and violence. The paintings seem to infect and transform everything around them: not only Velvet Buzzsaw’s entire cast of characters, but the style of the film itself. Without spoiling too much, the upshot is something like an art-world version of a Nightmare on Elm Street flick.

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