Dangerous Art: A Thematic Review of Velvet Buzzsaw

Domination, elitism, capitalism and the culture of critique all take turns under the microscope in Dan Gilroy’s satire/thriller Velvet Buzzsaw. Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo and Zawe Ashton star in a piercing, pointed and sometimes poignant take on the tragedy of art in an age of commercialization.

Velvet Buzzsaw showcases the best type of satire, not merely a send up of excess but a commentary that so cleverly apes the minutiae of a particular community that it is immediately obvious that the entire endeavor comes from a place of insider knowledge and not an outsider’s contempt. Gilroy does well to craft a film whose cutting gibes and gags flow organically from the character’s interactions with themselves and the outside world.

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Jake Gyllenhaal as Morf Valdewalt is a standout as the personification of the honest critic unwilling to lay aside his “selectivity” for domestic tranquility or monetary interests. Gyllenhaal layers this performance well, imbuing Mort with a disarming charm that belies a critic’s off-putting passion and negative judgment. Gyllenhaal plays Morf’s constant critique as something akin to a physical tic or a personality trait instead of an always considered judgement.

Zawe Ashton is another standout as Josephina, ambitious and talented but stuck in an emotional and professional quagmire while attempting to break into the incestuous world of the LA art scene. Josephina is emotionally devastated, avaricious and conniving, and Ashton portrays all of these character moments with aplomb. She does well to bring the audience to both sympathy and aversion towards her character.

Rene Russo is fantastic as Rhodora Haze. If every character in this film is a stereotype of some sort, Rene Russo’s is perhaps the most blatant (former punk rocker turned capitalist art maven). Yet even with this impediment, Russo shines and the movies’ most trenchant lines are given to her. 

John Malkovich and Daveed Diggs showcase two aspects of true art in defiance of the monstrous immediacy of ambitious art hangers-on in thrall of the profit motive: Malkovich as an accomplished artist learning to divorce his acts of creation from his propensity to self-destruct and Digg’s Damrish as an up-and-comer learning to navigate authenticity and ambition.  

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The plot can be surmised by watching the trailer, but that is not a critique of the movie because the plot serves mainly as a means for Gilroy to brilliantly explore three basic themes: 1) Domination and Control, 2) The Culture of Critique and 3) The Dangers of Commercialized Art.

In Velvet Buzzsaw, the themes of domination and control are always extant. To Gilroy, domination is the universal acid of the dog eat dog world of art and art dealing. Domination and asymmetrical power relationships in art – the leveraging of creation and talent through sexuality, theft and pecuniary interests – is showcased not only in the relationships that Josephina and Rhodora enter into with Daveed Diggs’ Damrish, but in the central theft that drives the plot. Power dynamics infect everything in Velvet Buzzsaw including the overarching conceit that powers the horror portions of the narrative. Nothing better typifies the domination ethos than a brief exchange between Josephine and Rhodora where the former alleges sexual harassment and the latter dismisses it as a cheap ploy to avoid taking responsibility for tardiness.

Velvet Buzzsaw also takes aim at the vapid, insular culture of critique that permeates discussion of art, especially online. Gyllenhaal’s obsessive and self-satisfied critic is the perfect stereotype of much of the people doing contemporary criticism, accurate down to race, gender and the use of buzzwords that do more to obfuscate than illuminate.  Morf takes little notice of how his negative reviews can affect others in the real world and prides himself on that.

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The culture of critique is not just typified by Morf in Velvet Buzzsaw. They are showcased through Rene Russo’s snide dismissal of Morf’s fear of the supernatural as “baroque.” It’s another critic’s arrogant brush-off of an art piece as a carnival act and John Don’s humorous inability to distinguish between art and bags of trash. To Gilroy, criticism is a necessary evil liable to being repurposed for unattractive ends by nefarious entities. A parasitic relationship between criticism and capitalistic ends is assumed by most of the characters in this film. Consequently, the film seeks to expose the paucity of this worldview to viewers who may have only suspected such an arrangement exists.  This corrective is particularly necessary now when the line between critics, creators and conglomerates is ever being lessened.

The dangers of commercialized art – art stripped of spiritual meaning and bought and sold like groceries – are given spiritual representation here. The bete noire of Velvet Buzzsaw is the need for money and power and the lengths that ambitious individuals will go to achieve it. “The money question, we can’t get away from it,” Morf observes, and he is correct. The need to achieve profits is continually shown in a negative light, and it is shown as an unconscious element of the artistic life itself, a critique of the notion that art en sich can provide a refutation for capitalism. This need to harness art to make money dovetails nicely with the domination ethos that Gilroy brings his mordant observations to bear upon. Velvet Buzzsaw recreates a fun-house mirror version of the American dream (complete with theft fueled by ambition) and alleges that current societal ills just may stem from old sins. This message is powerful, yet deliciously ironic when viewed on the platform of a major media company.

The horror in Velvet Buzzsaw is contextual and not overly grotesque, but there are a few jump scares and they mostly work well. The movie works best when perceived as a thriller, so don’t expect it to terrify you. The horror elements mainly stem from a sense of the uncanny and the inevitable that pervades this film and the chilling realization it offers us, namely that greed is a murderous evil that infiltrates every aspect of culture, even in places we assumed were immune.


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