The wacky Velvet Buzzsaw has several firsts to its credit. It is the first big Netflix movie of 2019; the first horror-satire that critiques the contemporary art world, and the first Netflix film headlined by Jake Gyllenhaal, the most versatile actor of his generation.
Buzzsaw works despite having cardboard characters, thanks to the top-notch cast. There is Rene Russo as a gallerist who is desperate to bag the next big artist; Toni Collette as a wheeling-dealing adviser to a moneybag collector; John Malkovich as a heavyweight caught in the artist’s version of writer’s block; and Gyllenhaal himself as a critic whose reviews can make or break careers.
Like any horror movie worth its salt, Buzzsaw shows most of its main characters being killed off violently and imaginatively. In a particularly audacious scene, set in a gallery, a dismembered body in a pool of blood is taken for a provocative piece of art.
But as a blood-fest, the proceedings are cleaner and classier than Final Destination. The director-writer Dan Gilroy, of the edgy Nightcrawler, keeps the dialogues sharp and the settings opulent. The film is like graffiti fit for the Louvre.
It has a silly plot, though, which is about the discovery of a series of stunning paintings by a dead artist called Vetril Dease, whose past is as mysterious as the mix of pigments in his works. Because Dease has no relatives, the paintings mean a lot of money with no strings attached. The gallerist dubs them an “eight-figure collection”—meaning everyone involved in the auctions stands to make big money. Dease’s evil spirit, however, works to destroy the plan.
The plot serves well as a plate for the film’s big message. Which is about the inherent worthlessness of art. In one scene, the gallerist tells a colleague why a negative review would affect the value of Dease’s works. “We don’t sell durable goods,” she says. “We peddle perception. Thin as a bubble.”
Lines like that make Buzzsaw the ultimate Netflix allegory. The platform does not deal in individual pieces of art (like the studios in Hollywood still do), but monetises a critic-proof collection of works. You pay for the medium, not the message. Gilroy, who once wasted two years scripting a Superman movie that was mercilessly shelved by Warner Brothers, was apparently given a free rein by Netflix. It shows: Buzzsaw reflects how the velvet-gloved Netflix and its outré content are putting the squeeze on old-school Hollywood.
Available on Netflix