For all the crap that Netflix churns out on a weekly basis, Velvet Buzzsaw is a triumphant reminder that when the streaming service delivers, it really delivers. Writer-director Dan Gilroy reunites with his Nightcrawler dream team of Rene Russo and Jake Gyllenhaal, creating a film even more striking and memorable than his 2014 directorial debut.
Velvet Buzzsaw submerges you in the opulent art world of Los Angeles, where gallery receptionist Josephina (Zawe Ashton) stumbles upon the paintings of an elderly recluse named Ventril Dease, after finding him dead in her apartment building one morning. Entering an uneasy business partnership with gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Russo), the pair exhibit his haunting work which becomes an overnight sensation, filling their pockets on the marketable story of an undiscovered genius. Unbeknownst to them, the art harbours a terrible secret that punishes those who would dare profit from it.
Challenged with blending the disparate genres of darkly comic drama and supernatural horror, Gilroy’s script works shockingly well. The ferocious dialogue has you hanging on every word, with his cast delivering both passive and overt aggression with equal gusto. Velvet Buzzsaw enlists a large ensemble and as a result certain characters disappear for extended periods of time, but remarkably this is no detriment to the narrative. Gilroy’s script brings characters back into the fold at just the right moment, making particularly efficient use of supporting players such as Natalia Dyer, John Malkovich and a delightful role for the incredible Toni Collette.
But make no mistake, the trinity at the heart of this movie is Russo, Gyllenhaal and rising star Zawe Ashton; in a film brimming with captivating performances, they collectively lead the way. Of the three, it’s Russo who is in the most familiar territory, taking on a hardened management role similar to her turn in Nightcrawler, but unsuprisingly she hits it out of the park.
Gyllenhaal is having a ball as pretentious art critic Morf Vandewalt, embodying all of the eccentricity you would expect from someone with that name, but never venturing into the realm of cartoon as he did in 2017’s Okja. For Ashton, this could well be a career-changing performance. She more than holds her own against a star-studded cast, serving as the closest thing Velvet Buzzsaw has to a lead. In that capacity, she displays a gamut of emotion as her character desperately fights for a place in a viciously competitive business, ultimately remaining a compelling figure despite her questionable morals.
As any fan of the genre will know, horror works best when the characters in peril are developed personalities, meaning that this fascinating ensemble works wonders for the film’s occasional shift into offbeat slasher flick. Gilroy directs a handful of suspenseful sequences that play with ingenious visuals to offer something pleasingly fresh, yet chilling to such a degree that at one pivotal moment I found myself instinctively holding my breath.
Velvet Buzzsaw is a genuine modern masterpiece. Both a playful satire of the detached art world and a thrilling story packed with memorable characters. Without a doubt, the film is just as engrossing as the eerie paintings at the centre of its plot, although hopefully not quite as deadly.