The elastic face of Jake Gyllenhaal is mobile with outrage: “I assess out of adoration. I further the realm I analyze!” The critic for ArtWeb—a thin fictionalization of the ArtNet online fine-art hype machine—Morf Vandewalt has just been accused of feeding tips to a collector before he publishes a positive review. But his protests ring a little hollow, which could spell trouble for him: In Velvet Buzzsaw, the new satire from Dan Gilroy, there are slasher-style consequences for the art world’s sell-outs.
The Instagram-drenched fine-art industry is overdue for a savaging, and there is nobody pure of heart in Velvet Buzzsaw. Josephina (Zawe Ashton) is a beautiful young woman who works for Rhodora (Rene Russo), a beautiful older ex-punk and owner of Haze Gallery (which sounds a lot like New York’s Pace Gallery). Morf and Josephina hook up during a Miami Art Basel trip before returning to Los Angeles. Once back, Josephina discovers her upstairs neighbor dead. Ventril Dease is his name, and he has left behind an apartment full of paintings, with specific instructions that they be destroyed.
The paintings exert a strange effect on all who see them. Dease seems based on Henry Darger, the janitor who died leaving behind an apartment full of eerie illustrations of little girls in a magical land, and a 15,0000-page fantasy novel. Like Darger, Dease made rather violent figurative paintings, but his are dressed up in oil brushstrokes.
Josephina sees their value at once, and ignores Dease’s request to destroy the work. The work is a hit. A gallerist-turned-art adviser named Gretchen (Toni Collette in sharp form) snaps a whole lot of it up. Although the art restorer’s lab finds something unpleasant mixed into Dease’s paint, the buyers love him. Morf loves him, too, and, faced with the canvases, announces that “critique is so limiting and emotionally draining.” Instead, he announces, he’ll write a book.
The murderous spirit of Ventril Dease, unfortunately, appears to inhabit his works. One by one, the movie’s key players are picked off by violent “accidents” that take place when they’re near art. A rude handler reaches a sticky end while next to a tacky gas station print of some dogs. Somebody else gets their arm eaten by an expensive sculpture. It’s all very schlocky, a little ‘80s, and extremely fun.
The criteria for suffering supernatural death seems to be simple: If you have profited off the artwork of Ventril Dease, which was never supposed to be exhibited, then you’re in for it. That seems a straightforward critique, on first glance: Commerce destroys the spirit of art, and in this case the art is out for revenge. But the form that the violence takes suggests a more interesting and complex theme. You always know that a death is about to happen when some nearby object—a doll, a painted face—starts glowing out of its eyes. And the art that kills people is uniformly bad: graffiti canvases, a stupid installation, an overpriced objet.
Gyllenhaal’s Morf is a ridiculous figure. He’s rich beyond all reason for a critic, and likes to do ostentatiously transgressive things like write naked and get very, very close to the art he is appraising. He’s also a dreadful writer. Dease was “using the art to dive deep into his own psyche.” He calls another exhibition a “snoozefest.” (In an interview, Gyllenhaal has said that he based the character on New York’s Jerry Saltz.) As Morf’s mind starts to disintegrate in the wake of Dease’s killings from beyond the grave, the celebrated critic visits an optician, because he has started “seeing things.” Josephina accuses him of “losing his eye.”
So when those horrible little eyeballs start glowing, you know that a bad artwork is about to fight back against the over-privileged human eye of the critic. Graffiti paint creeps up the body of a woman who hates graffiti, ruining her minimal aesthetic; a Brancusi-like bronze tries to crush a woman who has just gotten too rich. It’s as if every painting or sculpture deemed unworthy or otherwise abused by the industry (exploited for quick cash, say, or insulted) is revolting against their overlords. The critic is the last one they’ll chase, and the most significant.
As Josephina puts it in a key line, “What’s the point of art if nobody sees it?” Morf’s “eye” has been imbued with too much power, which has upset the balance between artwork and viewer. In between the glamorous silliness of the Basel scenes and Morf’s bespectacled antics, director Dan Gilroy appears to be making a kind of John Berger-style argument about the way we relate to visual culture. In his famous TV series Ways of Seeing, Berger posited that premodern art often presented objects on canvases (food, women, landscapes) as a kind of subservient offering to the viewer-patron. In the twentieth century, he said, the artwork retained its status as a luxury object, but became newly swaddled in the “false mystifications” of concepts so inaccessible and mysterious that they required an interpreter. “What may become part of our language,” Berger said, “is jealously guarded and kept within the narrow preserves of the art expert.”
Each of Gilroy’s films (Velvet Buzzsaw, Nightcrawler, and Roman J. Israel, Esq.) have pursued a remarkably coherent theme—the effect of money on the human soul. In Roman J. Israel, Esq., an idealistic lawyer loses his moral compass at the prospect of reward money. In Nightcrawler, Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a stringer who chases gruesome crime stories for a living. In both these movies as in Velvet Buzzsaw, Gilroy focuses on a male antihero, entrenched in some particular subculture, as the spider in the middle of a web of human relationships that are all compromised by a group failure of conscience.
Velvet Buzzsaw has none of the self-seriousness of Nightcrawler, which is to Gilroy’s credit. It’s impossible not to enjoy Toni Collette’s lampooning of an overpaid tastemaker; people in art are often just as snobby and absurd as the movie makes out. In that sense, it’s realistic. But Gilroy’s sociocultural analysis falls a bit flat. The movie does not really distinguish between stupid art and interesting art, instead lumping all visual culture together as a bloc against which art people can show their true colors. I also wish to God that critics were as rich or powerful as Morf Vanderwalt—that misrepresentation rather throws Velvet Buzzsaw’s critique off-base, too.
Still, the movie is undeniably fun. It comes within an inch of a really snappy disquisition (to use Morf’s word) on the painting marketplace, but to avoid disappointment it’s better approached as a gory romp. In John Berger’s words, “Glamor cannot exist without personal social envy being a common and widespread emotion”—and we love to see the glamorous punished.