Sundance 2019: Dan Gilroy's 'Velvet Buzzsaw' is Trippy, Weird, Funky
by Alex Billington
January 29, 2019
"If you place an object in a museum does that make this object a piece of art?" After the first viewing of this film (on the big screen at the Sundance Film Festival world premiere), it's hard to make sense of it. That's not a criticism, just a statement. The first time watching a murder mystery that unfolds in front of you as you are watching is always an eye-opening, rivting experience. With this one, it's even more exhilarating because there's so much going on - bouncing back and forth between dark comedy, freaky horror, wacky art world satire, and just regular relationship drama. Dan Gilroy's latest feature, that he wrote and directed, is titled Velvet Buzzsaw and it's trippy and weird as fuck and totally hilarious and funky and engaging. Not everyone will agree (or like it), but I dug the hell out of this film, as massively weird & insanely wild as it is.
Velvet Buzzsaw focuses on a handful of kooky, eccentric, stereotypical characters from the modern art world - collectors, critics, buyers, sellers, museum reps, artists, and a few lowly assistants. Almost all of them are pompous, full-of-themselves jackasses who care so little about actual art (or arrogantly pretend they do), much more about money (and politics and power) and everything that comes with it. Through an odd set of circumstances, one ambitious woman discovers a collection of incredible art and everyone goes crazy for it. But the art starts killing the people who are involved in its (illegal) sale and distribution, representing a kind of cathartic, real-world vengeance by the artist. At its most basic interpretation, the film is a commentary on the modern art world and corporate dog-eat-dog people obsessed with spending millions on boring artwork.
Of the many things that I enjoy about the film, there is an impressive amount of actual art in it. Part of the film takes place at one of the art trade shows and various pieces are on display. I don't know if they hired real artists to create these just for the film, or if they're borrowing them, but all the stuff we see is pretty damn cool. There's also plenty of trips to galleries and museums, with lots of other art showing up in the background. In my interpretation, it's the massive creative freedom that Netflix provided Dan Gilroy that allowed him to come up with all of this and create it in order to tell this art world story. And that bit of extra effort and freedom to go as weird and wild as he wanted is something that you'll either appreciate or not, as perhaps he gets a bit too wild and all the colors start to bleed together. But this creates something else new.
I really need to watch this film again, pull it apart more and bask in its surreal existence. There's a mix of tones that doesn't seem to work at first glance, but it also kind of does mix together nicely anyway - horror and comedy and satire all thrown into one art salad, and it's quite tasty. But art kills! And we have to watch out for this danger. The cast is easily the best part and makes this all the more watchable: Jake Gyllenhaal is fantastic, Toni Collette is amusing, Rene Russo is dicey, Natalia Dyer is superb, and Zawe Ashton is remarkable in a key breakout role. As with all art, it's up to everyone to determine on their own whether it appeals to them or not. And as funky as this film is, it's a sight to behold and a unique experience. What a trip, but it's the right kind of all-out creative trip I'm glad Gilroy could serve up. Just don't enjoy it too much.
Alex's Sundance 2019 Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing