Netflix Movie Review: Velvet Buzzsaw (2019)

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A satirical horror movie set in the modern art world, whether you're looking for a late night thrill or don't mind working a little harder to engage with a film on a deeper level, Velvet Buzzsaw will surely do.

Filled with witty wordplay and morbid metaphors brought vividly to life, in the weird and wonderful multi-layered third work from writer-director Dan Gilroy, even the character names are entertaining.

From Jake Gyllenhaal's taste-making art critic Morf Vandewalt, whose body language, voice, and taste morphs from one scene to the next to Rene Russo's gallery owner Rhodora Haze, whose Lolita-esque last name alludes as much to her younger days as a sexy, hard-living punk rocker (in the titular band) as it does her hazy business ethics, there's a lot here to savor.

Rather than opt for a traditional first person narrative, Gilroy's film takes a cue from Altman's oeuvre with its approach to storytelling. Set at the intersection of art and commerce where creativity is overshadowed by talk of demand, money, and the market, Buzzsaw revolves around a handful of characters who play very different roles in the industry from assistants and installers to artists and museum curators.

Led by Gyllenhaal and Russo (who co-starred in Gilroy's feature filmmaking debut Nightcrawler), Buzzsaw co-stars Toni Colette, John Malkovich, Zawe Ashton, Daveed Diggs, Natalia Dyer, Tom Sturridge, and Billy Magnussen who all seem to delight in Gilroy's mischievous script, which satirizes the commoditization of art in a way that could just as easily apply to film, publishing, or music.

Though undoubtedly anchored by Gyllenhaal's Vanderwalt, who looks like he had the time of his life on this film, Buzzsaw's real breakout turn is Zawe Ashton as Russo's ambitious assistant Josephina, who stumbles onto an apartment filled with art after her elderly neighbor dies with no heirs.

Initially entering the apartment to find and feed his cat, even though the man had left explicit instructions to destroy his art upon his death, Josephina can't resist bringing some to Morf to evaluate.

Fascinated by her discovery, with Morf's ecstatic approval, she teams up with the scheming Rhodora Haze to curate a show, destined to make her a superstar.

Soon after, the deceased Vitril Dease becomes the hottest name in art but as Morf digs into his past for a book and uncovers one disturbing story after another, he realizes a bit too late that the darkness pouring off the canvas and into the lives of those around him, which has resulted in multiple deaths, might be connected to Dease.

Lensed by Robert Elswit, the There Will Be Blood cinematographer makes the most of Gilroy's inventive frames right from the start as we explore a bizarre modern art convention in Miami where certain phrases (either in lights or spoken by an art installation robot) add another layer of foreshadowing and character revelation to the film. Needless to say (and fortunately for Netflix), Velvet Buzzsaw is designed to play even better on repeat viewings when we can take in every element.

Sure to be Netflix's next big post-Bird Box hit, with darkly comedic witticisms, up-to-the-minute satire, and shocking comeuppances performed by its stellar cast, Gilroy replaces the pre-credit shock sequence and familiar jump scares of retro horror fare with something irresistibly, thrillingly new.

Dare I say, I think Morf Vanderwalt would approve.

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