Commerce and greed are killing the art industry, literally, in “Velvet Buzzsaw,” a tarted-up throwback to a certain kind of trashy ’70s horror movie — à la “Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?” or “Theater of Blood,” in which cooks and critics got their just deserts — from the satirist responsible for “Nightcrawler.” Writer-director Dan Gilroy reunites Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo in this made-for-Netflix genre entry, in which (nearly) everyone who profited from exploiting a dead artist’s oeuvre must pay the price. The film premiered Sunday night in Sundance and hits the streaming service five days later — before the paint can even dry.
A fitting companion piece to “Nightcrawler,” which took place in a world of bottom-feeders, “Velvet Buzzsaw” circulates among a relatively rarefied group of elites: those who possess great wealth, great taste, or great ambition — although none seem to have great talent. The film opens at Art Basel Miami Beach, where effete-yet-feared critic Morf Vandewalt (Gyllenhaal) checks in with power-gallerist Rhodora Haze (Russo), museum buyer Gretchen (Toni Collette, styled to look like former MOCA curator Helen Molesworth), and ruthless up-and-comer Ricky Blane (Peter Gadiot), whose teeth are sharper than the teeth in Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living.”
As at Sundance, where the bad movies outnumber the good, much of what shows at art fairs is undeserving of the attention it gets, which makes this particular milieu ripe for parody, in part because people with insane amounts of money and a shortage of sense are constantly paying outrageous sums for works that would make the layperson roll his eyes. Skeptics have been calling it a bubble for years, predicting that the entire marketplace will one day implode — although it may be a comfort to the aforementioned characters that few if any of them will live long enough to see that happen.
While Rhodora and Ricky are busy trying to poach top-dollar artists from one another, Rhodora’s protégé Josephina (Zawe Ashton) is processing the bad news that her artist boyfriend has been cheating on her. Sensing an opportunity, bisexual Morf swoops in for a fling, which he misinterprets as the start of something more serious. The way Gilroy paints it, this is a world of opportunists and hypocrites, where everyone wants something. Morf is a useful ally to have, as Josephina discovers after one of her neighbors drops dead, leaving behind more than a hundred anguished oil paintings.
That kind of thing happens once or twice a decade, and the chances of it occurring a few doors down from someone like Josephina are slim, but Gilroy has a horror movie to unleash, and the setup is taking too long as it is. The artist, Vetril Dease, left specific instructions for his life’s work to be destroyed when he died, but Josephina sees an opportunity and intercepts it on its way to the dumpster. After showing a selection of works to Morf, she becomes convinced that she has made a major find, although her boss swoops in to manage the show, making all the arrangements necessary to turn it into “an eight-figure collection.”
Movies about fictitious artists nearly always find it difficult to come up with work that’s worthy of the reputation these characters are supposed to hold, and “Velvet Buzzsaw” has it doubly tough, since a bit of digging into Dease’s past reveals that he murdered his father and anyone else who crossed him over the years. Gilroy’s going for the kind of effect someone might have if Francis Bacon had gone undiscovered in his lifetime, only to have someone stumble into his studio, surrounded by nightmarish visions looming from all walls. These canvases are creepy, but they don’t sear themselves on your psyche in nearly the same way (the final image of the film is “a Dease” that looks no more deranged than your average Vincent Van Gogh painting).
Anyway, to the extent that Gilroy intends this as a critique of the commodification of contemporary art, Dease’s backstory is almost better left vague. The goal here is to punish all those who profit from this disturbed artist’s work after his death, invoking a kind of avenging supernatural force that holds them accountable for exploiting his pain. “All art is dangerous,” Rhodora purrs at one point, although she begins to take that idea literally after her friends and rivals start to drop dead one by one.
First to go is the sleazeball assistant (Billy Magnussen) who’s always hitting on women at work — an in-passing #MeToo reminder that Hollywood is hardly the only field where sexual harassment happens. “Velvet Buzzsaw” balances the scales somewhat by objectifying the hunk in the minutes before his death: His shirt catches fire, forcing him to remove it and run into an abandoned gas station, where he gets pulled into a tacky painting — the equivalent of Coolidge’s “Dogs Playing Poker.” At this point, it’s too early to recognize the pattern, although the general idea seems to be that while Dease’s victims have given their lives to art, now art will be taking their lives in increasingly creative ways.
For the film’s first hour, Gilroy makes a genuine attempt to inject observations about how artists inevitably wind up compromising once they start to worry about who’s buying their work and for how much — a message that couldn’t be more obvious if Barbara Kruger had spelled it out in big block letters. Skewering trends more than individual artists, the movie conceives just one genuinely clever new piece — a giant, interactive silver sphere perforated with holes into which viewers are invited to insert their hands — while the rest serve mostly for ridicule, like the squiggly-blob paintings from a has-been (John Malkovich) whom everyone agrees hasn’t been good since he got sober 15 years earlier.
Between the dark-and-twisted “Nightcrawler,” the morally bankrupt “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” and now this, Gilroy clearly has an ax to grind about the idea of selling out. “Velvet Buzzsaw” may be his most cynical movie yet, with most of the venom concentrated in the character of the critic. Technically, it’s a conflict of interest for someone who reviews art to collect paintings on the side, although that’s the least of Morf’s sins — though Gyllenhaal (relishing another of those cartoonishly camp performances he’s increasingly drawn to in his middle age) gets most of the movie’s best lines.
In her capacity as a film critic — and the sort of populist who was allergic to snobs like Morf — Pauline Kael famously quipped, “Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.” Gilroy doesn’t even aspire to making great art, but he’s getting better at delivering the latter.