Movie review: “Velvet Buzzsaw”

TMN movie critic Gordon McPherson gave this film 2.5 out of 5 berets.

I hope I won’t perish like the art snobs of Dan Gilroy’s “Velvet Buzzsaw.” I write these reviews out of love for the art of film, not to tear people down. Just don’t read my “Mute” review. I’ve changed my mind.

The film centers around a pretentious group of artists, critics and gallery owners in modern day Los Angeles. Among this fine crop of people is critic Morf Vandewalt — what a name — played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Accompanying him is gallery owner Rhodora Haze, played by Rene Russo and art curator Gretchen, played by Toni Collette. Josephina, a shady gallery employee played by Zawe Ashton, also joins the party, as does John Malkovich, for some reason. After “Bird Box,” I’ve had enough of him for a while. When Josephina finds a huge collection of paintings by her dead neighbor, Ventril Dease, the ensuing battle for the paintings leads to all hell breaking loose. Art gets its glorious revenge, and viewers get their bloodlust satiated.

“Velvet Buzzsaw” is a weird film, no doubt about it. There’s much to appreciate about Gilroy’s satirical takedown of the contemporary art world, but there’s also, ironically, much to critique. What finally emerges is a film containing moments of brilliance, but also scenes of excruciating boredom.

At least the film’s central message is strong. Art should be appreciated for its own sake, not solely for marketability and monetary gain — ahem, Michael Bay.

From the first scene onwards, Gilroy paints characters enveloped in greed and stupidity. These characters defame, threaten and harass each other to get rich — overlooking the value and craft of the art they supposedly base their lives around.

While effectively establishing all the characters — yes, every single one — as morally deplorable, Gilroy also robs the film of any emotional impact. Seeing these characters spout art jargon and heinous insults at each other is entertaining, but only to a certain point. They’re bad people, obviously, I get it. About an hour in, I couldn’t care less about their well-being.

Where Gilroy’s 2014 masterpiece “Nightcrawler,” also starring Gyllenhaal and Russo, succeeded as a twisted character study, the scattershot approach of “Velvet Buzzsaw” undermines any individual characters’ depth. If the film had focused solely on Vandewalt, rather than several different characters, perhaps I’d care more. Gyllenhaal himself gives quite a performance, hamming it up to accentuate the plot’s ridiculousness.

While “Velvet Buzzsaw” wastes too much time with greed-fueled conversations early on, the film shines when the characters’ sins are punished.

The numerous gory kills don’t elicit gasps, but guffaws. One kill in particular, involving an amputation, “the Sphere” and small children playing in the aftermath, is unforgettable. Gilroy embraces the film’s slasher genre potential, serving up a delicious platter of over-the-top carnage.

There’s also a number of surprisingly suspenseful sequences, enhanced by Robert Elswit’s exacting cinematography — full of slow zooms and steady camerawork.

Karmic justice, devoted acting and a relevant message don’t overshadow the film’s meandering nature, however. Unless viewers are prepared to slog through over an hour of unsympathetic characters being unsympathetic, “Velvet Buzzsaw” doesn’t warrant a viewing.