Netflix is on a roll when it comes to buzzy releases, and Velvet Buzzsaw is poised to become the next conversation piece housed on the service.
The 113-minute horror thriller—written and directed by Dan Gilroy—is focused on a group of elites profiting from and creating fine art. We meet artists, brokers, critics and the assistants that keep cash flowing in with superficial sales tactics and snobby showings. The opening of the film—its weakest part—introduces its colorful cast of characters at a Miami soirée, giving a glimpse of their personalities and some exposition to help the viewer navigate this elitist scene.
This also serves as a fast note to the audience expecting a slasher fest to cool their temptations a bit. There’s more to unpack in Velvet Buzzsaw than just paintings that kill people (even though that's the most memorable aspect of the film, hands down).
For there on out, characters offer a glimpse into the dark and bright spots of the art world. Some characters battle between making art for the sake of creation while others are simply out to make a buck, no matter the moral cost.
The standout in this cavalcade of creatives is critic Morf Vandewalt, played by a batty-as-ever Jake Gyllenhaal. He's pretentious and wields more power in this world when it comes to an artist's livelihood than is almost believable. Rene Russo, Gyllenhaal's on-screen partner from Gilroy's Nightcrawler, is another pillar of the flick as the punk-rocker-turned-art-dealer Rhodora Haze. Rhodora employs the desperate Josephina (Zawe Ashton), the sleezy Bryson (Billy Magnussen) and the clueless Coco (Natalia Dyer), among others. Other bold personalities also enter the fray in the form of Toni Collette's curator Gretchen, John Malkovich's aging painter Piers and Daveed Diggs' rising creative Damrish.
These characters mingle, make shady business deals, hook-up and everything in-between as Gilroy sets the stage for the draw of the film: homicidal paintings.
A collection of fascinating, haunting paintings are discovered in a dead man's apartment, with wishes that they be destroyed. Jessica and Rhodora instead turn them into the next "it" trend in the fine art world.
As the paintings turn into profit, bodies soon start to pile up in the most interesting of ways. Velvet Buzzsaw has some of the most eyebrow-raising kills horror has seen in quite a while. Portraits coming to life and interactive pieces “malfunctioning” set the stage, and things soon escalate up to wild hallucinations and deaths that completely bend reality.
These deaths are a double-edged sword. They are quite awesome to see play out, and the space between them causes them to be savored. However, that means there just aren't that many. It would be easy for the average Netflix viewer wanting a constant thrill ride akin to Bird Box to be left disappointed by the lower body count and emphasis on art world drama.
The added satire of the art scene is fun, whether you’re plugged into the scene or scoff at elites paying millions for seemingly simple creations. Gilroy has also crafted a parable about profiting off of art in this gory treat, which keeps the movie centered as the final deaths roll out in insane ways.
While all these dressings are interesting in concept, it would not mean much without strong performances to sell them. Luckily, Velvet Buzzsaw has several.
Gyllenhaal shows impressive range, going from calculated snob to madman as the truth behind the paintings comes into focus. Toni Collette is a delight as the bubbly museum curator that turns to the dark side of fine art, and Russo kills as a badass boss that is as cutthroat as they come. However, some of the cast's most talented members are under-utilized, namely Malkovich, Magnussen and Diggs.
Despite a few blemishes and not being the non-stop murder-fest some fans want, Velvet Buzzsaw is a compelling flick. It’s a unique experience in the horror genre for sure, with some higher quality performances and well-versed writing to elevate it from a genre footnote to an must-watch standout in Netflix's ever-growing library.
Velvet Buzzsaw begins streaming on Netflix and showing in select theaters on Friday.
Photo Credit: Claudette Barius/Netflix