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Review: Dan Gilroy’s ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ savages the art world

(L-R) - Rene Russo and Jake Gyllenhaal in a scene from the movie “Velvet Buzzsaw.” Credit: Claudette
Rene Russo and Jake Gyllenhaal in the movie “Velvet Buzzsaw.”
(Claudette Barius / Netflix)

Throughout much of the art-world spoof “Velvet Buzzsaw” it feels like writer-director Dan Gilroy is taking easy shots at fat targets. Diva artists, ruthless dealers, easily impressed collectors, cruel and capricious critics … . Is there any way to make these kinds of shopworn stereotypes funny?

Somewhat miraculously, Gilroy finds a way — mainly by not obsessing so much about whether “Velvet Buzzsaw” says anything new about the aesthetes who populate art galleries.

This movie’s a satire, sure. But that’s not really its main selling point. Think of it instead as a wild supernatural thriller — where the sinister killer is art itself.

The film’s impressive ensemble cast doesn’t have a “lead” per se. The plot really kicks into gear thanks to Zawe Ashton’s character, Josephina: an apprentice dealer who discovers more than a thousand grim but beautiful pieces of original art in the burned-out apartment of her dead neighbor, Ventril Dease.

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Immediately, the industry’s gears start grinding. Josephina’s boss Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo) starts manipulating the market to maximize sales with the help of critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal), who promises flattering reviews of the Dease collection in exchange for the book rights. Meanwhile, private buyer Gretchen (Toni Collette) overpays for a few of the pieces, then bullies her former gallery employer into exhibiting them to give her client a break on his tax bill.

The only characters who seem to have pure, completely non-mercenary reactions to the Dease cache are two painters — a burned-out drunk (John Malkovich) and a rising graffiti star (Daveed Diggs) — who are inspired to get back to work. Maybe that’s why they’re spared when Josephina’s found paintings start coming to life and murdering their owners.

Yes, that’s right: About a third of the way through, “Velvet Buzzsaw” becomes about haunted canvasses that reach out and slaughter nasty people, one by one, in appropriately ironic ways. It’s a little like an old-fashioned comic mystery — say “Who Is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe?” — except that the identity of the killer is no secret, and the deaths are as gruesome as any Freddy Krueger movie.

This is a bold stroke from Gilroy: to make a violent, over-the-top picture, where the cartoonish parody could very well turn off genre fans, while the bloody surrealism might scare away anyone just looking for a comedy. (The film is very much an acquired taste, and many people, no doubt, will be put off by both extremes. It’s probably a good thing it’s on Netflix, where adventurous subscribers can give it a try.)

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Still, while the art world caricatures are hardly fresh, there’s a lot about “Velvet Buzzsaw” that’s pretty savvy and even inspired. Gilroy has a handle on a lot of the odd particulars of the modern art biz: like the favor-trading, the hype-building, and the use of a combination of technology and instincts to squeeze the most money from a sale.

Like Gilroy’s earlier films “Nightcrawler” and “Roman J. Israel, Esq.,” his latest also expresses a fascination with the hardened sediment of the class structure and the existential crises of the people buried below.

Ultimately, whether people dig “Velvet Buzzsaw” will probably come down to how much they enjoy seeing a bunch of absurdly pretentious characters get choked, crushed, eviscerated and pulled apart by great works of art. Gilroy’s central metaphor may not be subtle, but it’s deeply felt. No matter what the market, the public and the critics all say, great art is destined to have its revenge.

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‘Velvet Buzzsaw’

Rated: R for violence, language, some sexuality/nudity and brief drug use

Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

Playing: Starts Friday, The Landmark, West L.A.; also streaming on Netflix

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