Sundance 2019: “Velvet Buzzsaw”

Dan Gilroy’s latest cinematic treat, a film that satirizes the art culture with ridiculous aplomb, premiered last night. It’s set in the vacuous art market of Los Angeles, where an unknown artist is discovered after his death, leading to a supernatural force that enacts revenge upon those who profit from his work.

Gallery owner Rhonda Haze (Rene Russo) takes young protege Josephina (Zawe Ashton) under her wing. One day, while heading off to work, Josephina discovers a dead man named Dease lying outside of his apartment. But the bigger discovery, apparently, is within her apartment. When Josephina creeps inside the deceased man’s home, she discovers hundreds of incredible paintings littering his space.

Director Dan Gilroy.

She takes the horde to respected yet feared art critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is immediately impressed by the work. Rhonda seizes the opportunity to score big by selling this stash of dark, Goya-inspired canvases, informing Josephina that she will become incredibly rich after the paintings are sold. Museum buyer Gretchen (Toni Collette) also follows the money, setting up an exhibition in a major museum to showcase the work of Dease.

Yet something sinister lies beneath the dark, mysterious figures that peer out from the paintings, exacting payback on those who profit from selling the pieces.

Meanwhile, burnt-out artist Piers (John Malkovich) is having little if any luck in his own artistic career, cynical and bitter after sobering up and now seemingly unable to create compelling canvases for ruthless up-and-comer Ricky Blane (Peter Gadiot) to sell.

In the film, Gilroy paints a world where everybody wants something, where those with zero artistic talent sell talented artist’s work for ridiculous sums of money and where allies and opportunists are the toast of the town. It’s a caustic but amusing picture of the art world with solid production values and an increasingly creepy plot.

Actors Billy Magnussen, Tom Sturridge, Natalia Dyer, Jake Gyllenhaal, director Dan Gilroy and actors Rene Russo, Zawa Ashton and Jennifer Fox attend the World Premiere of Velvet Buzzsaw by Dan Gilroy, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Ryan Kobane.

Gruesome deaths begin to litter the storyline as the ending approaches, while an increasingly desperate Gyllenhaal gives a delicious and somewhat camp portrayal of an art critic losing his mind after the bodies pile up, discovering that Dease requested his work be burned following his death. Yet, there is no escape for him and, ultimately, everyone else.

Toni Colette gets another ghastly death scene at Sundance, one just as intense as her ending in “Hereditary” that screened here just last year. Left in the museum late at night busy securing her exhibition, she checks out an interactive silver sphere with perforated holes on its surface where viewers are invited to insert their hands. Needless to say, the work gives new meaning to bleeding-edge art. It’s definitely a highlight of the film as visitors walk past her dead corpse and pools of blood the next day, believing her to be part of the exhibit.