High Art Meets Horror: Velvet Buzzsaw Review
WARNING: This review does contain spoilers
“Jesus! What’s the point of art if nobody sees it!”- Josephina, Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)
The contemporary high art world and the graphic horror genre collide in Netflix’s newest movie, Velvet Buzzsaw. This comes from the writer and director of Nightcrawler, Dan Gilroy, as along with two other actors from that movie, Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo. Velvet Buzzsaw is a horrific satire that criticizes the economic factors of the high art world through fantastical pieces of art coming to life.
The movie follows members of this high art community, gallery owners, art critics, and museum curators, as they all suffer horrible deaths by the ghost of a dead artist. All the deaths, however, are characters who are greedy and tried to profit of the artist’s work. They are also people who don’t make any of their real art and just make money off of others’ creativity. The only people who live are those who escape the high art world, two of out three of these characters happen to also be artists.
One of the artists, played by Daveed Diggs, voluntarily leaves the high art world and returns to his underground roots. The other artist, played by John Malkovich, actually worked for one of the gallery owners for twenty years but was dropped after his sobriety affected his work. What’s telling of his character is that people place more value on “troubled” art and don’t care about the health of the actual artist. He probably gets the happiest ending, making art in the sand as the waves wash it away; making art for himself and not for other.
The movie ends with a homeless man who found a crate of the dead artist’s selling the paintings on the side of the street. Only a couple of days ago, his work was worth millions of dollar, but now the homeless man sells one of the paintings for five dollars. It leaves the audience with the question, “Will this homeless man die because he sold the paintings?” I believe he won’t because he’s not being incredibly greedy and the purchase doesn’t happen in the high art world, but that is my own interpretation. There is evidence that he too may die a gruesome at the hands of art.
The name of the movie comes from Russo’s character, the art gallery owner who sells the dead artist’s work. Before the gallery, she was in a punk band called “Velvet Buzzsaw” but broke up with the other member. Shortly after this break, her former partner dies of a drug overdose. The name comes from more than just a band name, it’s oxymoron. Velvet is soft while buzzsaw is sharp, the two words contradicting each other. Art should be a soft and inviting feeling, but within the high art world, it becomes sharp and dangerous to create art. The dead artist’s work should be a goldmine for this world, but it slowly kills anyone who tries to profit off it.
Dease, the dead artist, acts a vengeful spirit who is able to bring other pieces of art to kill. None of his art ever comes to life other than just the eyes on his painting starting to move, using the other art to kill off characters. It’s hinted that he’s able to do this through putting his own blood into his paintings, but it’s never explicitly stated. The only information we know about this character is that he was abused by his father, killed his father is a violent way, and ended up in an insane asylum.
This is what makes Velvet Buzzsaw a nontraditional horror movie, categorizing it more as psychological thriller. The movie uses supernatural horror as a backdrop to the drama happening within the high art world. Gilroy is trying to tell a story about the value of art instead of writing cheap horror.
That is not to say that the horror isn’t gruesome. The death scenes are graphic, with the most brutal in my opinion being Toni Collette’s characters. Her character’s arm gets ripped off and her blood is sprayed all around the room. Children then play in the blood because her body gets mistaken as an art piece. The least graphic death would be paint consuming one of the characters until she becomes incorporated into the piece.
The deaths are few though, only killing five of the characters. Many horror movies today will go for the gruesome route and kill five characters within the first half hour. Personally, I prefer the horror of Velvet Buzzsaw over the horror of B-rated movies because it sets up the tension. It’s also never explained how Dease is able to possess art and kill others, which adds to the horror. Supernatural movies like this one can be ruined by trying to explain the threat and give details on how to kill it.
The dialogue is, at most times, silly. Even in dramatic scenes where a character is cheated on, everything is just pretentious. Gyllenhaal’s character, an art critic, is probably the most guilty of this. He is hailed as a god in the high art community and his reviews can make or break an art piece. The art that actually kills him is one he condemned earlier on in the film and put into storage. So his large ego, along with the other dead characters, is embodied through the dialogue. It was on purpose to highlight pride within the high art community.
Velvet Buzzsaw is trying to say art doesn’t have to be commodified. The economy surrounding the movie cares more about what is and isn’t art, and isn’t afraid to destroy what isn’t considered art. The scene on the beach is actually based of a real life event. Gilroy worked on a Superman movie in the 90s for a year and a half and after it was cut by the studio, he went to the beach and wrote in the sand. He wrote for himself, just as the artist created something for himself, and it doesn’t matter if it gets washed away; it doesn’t need to be seen by everyone.
“Forget about the art world. You need to get away from all this, take a break… do something for nobody but yourself.”- Rhodora, Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)