'Velvet Buzzsaw' Review: It's Jake Gyllenhaal Vs. Killer Paintings In This Hilarious, Bloody Horror-Comedy [Sundance]

Screenwriter Dan Gilroy made his directorial debut with the sharp, exciting Nightcrawler, featuring Jake Gyllenhaal giving an incredible performance. It was an exciting launch to Gilroy's directorial career that was sadly followed with the lackluster Roman J. Israel, Esq. Let's call it a sophomore slump, because Gilroy bounces back in a big, bloody way with the hilarious Velvet Buzzsaw. The horror-comedy has the filmmaker reuniting with Gyllenhaal, but Velvet Buzzsaw is worlds removed from Nightcrawler. While Nightcrawler was going for cerebral thrills, Velvet Buzzsaw is trafficking in gore-soaked comedy...with a much higher body count.

Velvet Buzzsaw is set in the colorful art world, following a cavalcade of ridiculous characters who never realize how ridiculous they are. Gyllenhaal is priggish art critic Morf Vandewalt, who can make or break a gallery with a few acerbic words. Rene Russo plays Rhodora Haze, a former punk artist turned gallery owner, who long ago traded in creating art to make loads of money. Zawe Ashton is Josephina, a receptionist with lofty ambitions. Tom Sturridge portrays Jon Dondon, another gallery owner and Rhodora's chief competitor. Toni Collette is Gretchen, a consultant for a private buyer. And John Malkovich portrays morose artist Piers, who hasn't been able to create anything worthwhile since he gave up drinking. The only seemingly normal member of this rag-tag group of weirdos is Coco (Natalia Dyer of Stranger Things), another receptionist who will soon have very bad luck stumbling across dead bodies.

After introducing us to these characters (and a few others), Gilroy unleashes a weird, wild, blood-drenched saga of killer art. When an old man in her apartment building dies, Josephina snoops into the dead man's apartment and discovers over 1000 paintings created by the dead man himself. The paintings are in a variety of styles and mediums, but they all share a commonality: they're creepy as hell. Leering faces, screaming children, raging fires, twisted limbs, and more – they practically scream out from the canvases. Josephina immediately takes some of the art to Morf, who quickly assess that they're masterworks. Rhodora gets in on the action as well, and planning begins to unleash the work upon the world, and score a hefty profit in the process.

But there's something very wrong with these paintings beyond their disturbing subject matter. There's a supernatural force at work in the paintings – with the power to alter reality and kill people in gruesome ways. Things unravel fast, and the cast of characters start dropping dead as Morf unravels, attempting to learn what the hell is going on.

On the surface, Gilroy is painting a picture of fools meeting their demise because they dared embrace capitalist greed over the purity and sanctity of art. The bulk of the characters in Velvet Buzzsaw only care about money and fame, and don't care much how they achieve it – as long as they achieve it. Gilroy could have gone deeper with this idea, but really, he's just using it as a springboard to have fun. This allows Gilroy to mash-up genres and styles, creating a work of art in its own right. You've never seen anything quite like Velvet Buzzsaw. It's bold and exciting, and I loved every damn minute of it.

velvet buzzsaw sundance review

Satirizing the art world allows Velvet Buzzsaw to garner huge laughs with preposterous scenarios. The characters all work in the world of avant garde, outsider art – art that's hard to pin down. One of funniest moments in the film arises when a character's mangled dead body on a gallery floor is mistaken for just another installation, resulting in gallery patrons obliviously studying the corpse with as if it were something to be interpreted. Other art gags include something called Go Pro Kindergarten, a giant metal sphere that invites observers to poke their hands into random holes, and a strange, creepy robot called Hoboman, who spits out sentences like, "I once built a railroad," and "I can't save you." It's all so weird and wonderful. The level of detail that went into creating all of this is worth celebrating – nothing here feels fabricated, not even the many creepy paintings. We can easily slip into the world Velvet Buzzsaw is creating.

Gilroy's cast is game for all of this insanity. Gyllenhaal, who continues his transformation into full-blown quirky character actor, is a hoot as the snobby Morf, who can never turn off his criticisms – even at a funeral ("Imagine spending eternity in that," he says while looking a coffin he deems hideous). Russo is sharp and biting as the gallery owner who once made art of her own, before selling her soul to the almighty dollar. Collette gets to have the most fun, wearing a ridiculous wig and hamming it up at every turn. And Ashton is stellar as Josephina, who starts off sympathetic before slowly turning cold and greedy.

As entertaining as the performances are, and as memorable as the characters may be, the fact of the matter is there's not a whole lot to them. They're comical figures who exist solely to be put in peril. It would be easy to decry this, and criticize Velvet Buzzsaw for lacking any real depth. But the movie is just too goddamn fun to get that upset. Would a smarter film with more of a message be better? Maybe, but it probably wouldn't be this off-the-wall, and what a tragedy that would be. Yes, yes, this is a satire of the art world. But it's also a movie where a painting of monkeys dressed as mechanics comes to life and kills someone. That, my friends, is my kind of art.

/Film rating: 8 out of 10