It's at Jon Dondon's funeral when Morf Vandewalt begins to wonder what's the deal with Ventril Dease. That last sentence may sound like I've just had a stroke, but the whacko names in Dan Gilroy's satirical poke at the Los Angeles art world, Velvet Buzzsaw (now streaming on Netflix), are indicative of the playfulness in this unusual film. That and the part when a woman's arm gets sawed off by a stainless steel sphere, spewing blood all over a museum.
Velvet Buzzsaw, which stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a make-or-break art critic, Rene Russo as a former punk queen turned dealer, Toni Collette as a buyer and John Malkovich as a painter, is weird. It wants to be weird. Its kill scenes (and, yes, this is a movie about cursed artwork; think The Ring but with paintings) are more goofy than gory, and its comedy is more droll than scathing. But this is a movie with a very specific tone, a readymade cult film that anyone who took more than a two-credit art history class will enjoy quoting. Importantly, the horror elements actually work, and the characters (while silly) are richly drawn. It may seem a piffle from afar, but it's still a real movie.
Gyllenhaal's flamboyant performance as a bisexual art critic and Collette's as a shrewd buyer nail the low-key comedy best. Since they are funny, it may seem, at first, like the movie is heaping scorn on these shallow cultural leeches. But once you get past the haircuts, everything they say about art is actually . . .legit? Gyllenhaal's Morf Vandewalt is accused of being insensitive when he grouses about an ugly coffin, but "it's my job; I'm selective" is actually a pretty reasonable response. "We don't sell durable goods, we peddle perception," Russo's dealer spits out of the corner of her mouth. At least she's honest?
Velvet Buzzsaw takes its time getting to its plot, following narrative tangents in a bit of a stoner's haze. It lacks an "anchor" character; no one from the normal world exists to help guide the audience. At first it seems like the striving dealer Josephina (Zawe Ashton) is that person, but once she discovers a cache of abandoned paintings by the mysterious Ventril Dease, she is as slippery as everyone else. Though everyone is a bit self-centered, Velvet Buzzsaw doesn't really have any villains. This sort of exaggerated phoniness makes for a somewhat distant tone, reminiscent of the classic "independent" vibe of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The cursed Dease paintings clearly represent something, but this is not the type of movie to be so square as to force it down your throat. It's much more interesting to watch these actors chomp into their blocks of absurdist dialogue. Gilroy's touch is just this side of camp, and as such it's possible that Netflix has their first bonafide underground classic on their hands. We'll know if, once this movie launches, enough people shrug it off, calling it strange. In one reflective moment, Russo sighs, "I've gone from anarchist to purveyor of good taste. So I get the joke." This is a movie for people who get the joke.
Velvet Buzzsaw is now streaming on Netflix.