When credits are due: Thank you Netflix for producing movies as weird as ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’

There are a lot of things about Netflix that are deserving of criticism and complaint.Its interface is cluttered and inefficient, and nobody likes those auto-playing videos. The streaming giant is also not very transparent when it comes to statistics. What’s…

There are a lot of things about Netflix that are deserving of criticism and complaint.

Its interface is cluttered and inefficient, and nobody likes those auto-playing videos. The streaming giant is also not very transparent when it comes to statistics. What’s more, they just made a deal to make content out of Gwyneth Paltrow’s gross pseudoscience mill, Goop. And perhaps worst of all, Netflix appears to not care – in the slightest – about giving its subscribers access to movies produced prior to 1970.

But there’s one big thing Netflix does that is undeniably great: it invests huge amounts of money in original content. And that’s a lot more than just Stranger Things and 13 Reasons Why. It’s a huge volume of documentaries and stand-up specials and even talk shows, from talent hailing from both the unknown and Hollywood established.

There’s also Netflix’s investments in original films. Roma, Alfonso Cuaron’s very personal film about his childhood in Mexico City, was picked up by the streamer and is an Oscar contender. Netflix also played a part in restoring Orson Welles’ long-unfinished The Other Side of the Wind, which finally surfaced last year.

Now Netflix has brought out Velvet Buzzsaw, a film so weird, so offbeat, and so out of nowhere, that it’s the sort of release that major studios never take risks on anymore. It’s hard to imagine, say, Paramount Studios green-lighting a horror film that satirizes the high-end art world, depicting the paintings themselves striking back against art aficionados.

Sure, Velvet Buzzsaw, which was released last weekend on Netflix, following a Sundance Film Festival debut, doesn’t hold entirely together. But I so admired this film’s audacity that I didn’t much mind.

Velvet Buzzsaw was written and directed by Dan Gilroy, who teamed with Jake Gyllenhaal five years ago on the gonzo local TV news drama and arguably the best performance of Gyllenhaal’s career, Nightcrawler. Here, the two re-team, along with Rene Russo (who is married to Gilroy) for an art-house satire that’s not quite as cynical as Nightcrawler, although it certainly comes close.

__

“…[A] a surprising form of revenge, carried out by the paintings … to imagine a local example, try to imagine if the brouhaha when they moved the Barnes Museum from Merion to the Parkway had ended with the Barnes’ art collection itself literally devouring those responsible for disregarding Albert C. Barnes’ wishes.”

__

Gyllenhaal stars in Velvet Buzzsaw as the gloriously named Morf Vandewalt, a powerful art critic, who finds himself up against Rhodora Haze (Russo), a former punk rock star-turned art gallery owner. The bisexual Morf soon ditches his male lover (Sedale Threatt Jr., son of the former Laker) for Josephina, an art agent played by British actress Zawe Ashton, the film’s breakout star.

Josephine soon discovers the dead body of a man who lives in her apartment building and with it an extensive collection of undiscovered art and a demand by the deceased artist they be destroyed. These wishes, of course, are disregarded, leading to a surprising form of revenge, carried out by the paintings themselves.

To imagine a local example, think about if the brouhaha over the Barnes Museum moving from Merion to the Parkway had ended with the Barnes Collection itself literally devouring those responsible for disregarding Albert C. Barnes’ wishes.  

The cast is uncommonly strong from top to bottom, with strong supporting roles from the likes of John Malkovich, Toni Collette, Daveed Diggs, and the now grown-up Stranger Things actress Natalia Dyer.

Gyllenhaal shines in a role that’s somewhat against type, and Russo is one of those actresses who Hollywood sadly and unfairly discarded once she reached a certain age. I was especially blown away by Zawe Ashton, an actress whose resume up until now consisted mostly of Channel Four dramas in the U.K. She’s got a major presence and holds her own against more established co-stars.

Sure, the Velvet Buzzsaw veers into the ridiculous at times. But the vibe is so right that the ludicrosity gets a pass. Gilroy’s previous film, the 2017 Denzel Washington lawyer saga Roman J. Israel, Esq., had some good ideas but ultimately fell apart at the end. This is much better.

Velvet Buzzsaw would make for a fine double feature with Ruben Ostlund’s The Square, the German film from two years ago that also combined art gallery intrigue with weirdo sex scenes, although Ostlund’s film never crossed into the supernatural.  

Gilroy’s new film is worth your time, even if you have to scroll past Marie Kondo to watch it.

TWITTER: @STEPHENSILVER

  • Steven Silver Headshot

    Stephen Silver is a writer, film critic, podcaster and editor who has worked in the Philadelphia region since 2005. In addition to Philadelphia Weekly, his work has appeared in New York Press, Tablet, Philadelphia Magazine, Philly Voice, AppleInsider, The Jerusalem Post, Fox29.com, and Broad Street Review.