Velvet Buzzsaw marks the third film from writer/director Dan Gilroy. His first feature was the dark thriller Nightcrawler, which many critics rightly lauded as a masterpiece. His second film, the drama Roman J Israel Esq, received universally mixed reviews– also for good reason. Now in his third outing Gilroy goes for horror with Velvet Buzzsaw. While I admire his decision to stretch himself as a new director, Velvet Buzzsaw is his weakest feature yet.
The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Zawe Ashton, Toni Collette, Daveed Diggs, and John Malkovich. The plot centers on the discovery of a large stash of disturbing paintings found in a painter’s apartment after his death. An ambitious art gallery owner (Russo) with the help of her business associate (Ashton) and committed art critic (Gyllenhaal) set out to make a fortune on the deceased artist’s work. Shortly after taking the art mysterious events start to occur and the trio begin to wonder what they have got themselves into.
Sounds interesting huh? Perhaps with a good screenplay it would have been. Sadly, no good screenplay is found here. This was very surprising, as writing is Dan Gilroy’s greatest strength. His original screenplay for Nightcrawler is, for my money, one of the best in recent memory. Velvet Buzzsaw, on the other hand, is just an all around mess. There are multiple subplots/side characters that go absolutely nowhere and serve no purpose whatsoever. It’s almost laughable. A couple of examples off the top of my head are the plotlines involving John Malkovich, who plays an abstract artist who’s struggling to keep his motivation and passion for his work alive, and Daveed Diggs as an up and coming artist who comes from humble beginnings. Neither of these subplots enrich the main storyline, or serve to better develop any of the central characters. They amount to nothing but filler. There is also a “romance” storyline involving two main characters that could not have been more boring if Gilroy tried his absolute hardest.
It’s also worth mentioning the film completely fails at horror—which is pretty damning for a movie marketed as a horror film. Nearly every attempt to be scary or creepy just comes off as either boring or unintentionally funny. There are a couple exceptions at the end of the film, but its too little too late at that point. The jump scares are also some of the worst I have ever seen.
The actors do the best with what they are given, but every character is a shallow, one- dimensional, bore. This, unfortunately, includes Gyllenhaal, who was absolutely mesmerizing in Gilroy’s first film Nightcrawler. Horror films work best when you actually care about the fate of the characters in the story—when you are invested in what happens. Hard to care when every character in Velvet Buzzsaw is unlikeable and unsympathetic.
I actually just wanted them to die and get the whole thing over with.
It also doesn’t help that the story is often convoluted. There were many times in the film where I was scratching my head trying to remember who certain characters were and how they knew each other. It probably doesn’t help that I’m not familiar at all with the art world. But a good screenplay would find a way to make it easy to follow regardless of prior knowledge of the films subject matter.
Velvet Buzzsaw desperately needed several adjustments before getting the green light. The first would be to streamline the plot. Gilroy needed to cut the boring and random subplots/side characters and tighten the central premise. Secondly, the characters had to be three dimensional and either sympathetic or at least intriguing. And the third thing would be to add better setups and payoffs, especially when it comes to the horror elements at play. This way the movie would if nothing else, at least be scary. Without these crucial judgments, what are we left with? A boring, convoluted, uninteresting, padded, mess of a film you just can’t wait to be over. Better luck next time Gilroy. I’m still rooting for you.
*½ / *****