Director – Dan Gilroy
Cast – Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Collette, Zawe Ashton, Tom Sturridge, Natalia Dyer, Daveed Diggs, Billy Magnussen, John Malkovich
Rating – 4.5/5
To vent his frustration at the several poor reviews he’d received at the hands of celebrated critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, director Roland Emmerich came up with the most childish revenge strategy possible. For his 1998 film, Godzilla, he created characters meant as a very direct takedown of them. And displaying the sort of imagination that defines his movies, he named them Ebert and Gene, and made them first-class idiots.
Ebert in his (negative) review of the film took it as a compliment, and offering solid critique, wondered why Emmerich hadn’t done the obvious and had Godzilla squish his namesake like a bug.
Fortunately, director Dan Gilroy’s disdain for critics manifests with far more wit, humour and intelligence, although with less subtlety than Ruben Ostlund’s recent, similarly themed film, The Square. Played by Jake Gyllenhaal in in one of his all-time great performances, his art critic in Gilroy’s new film, Velvet Buzzsaw, isn’t quite as detestable as Mayor Ebert from Godzilla, but he’s right up there.
Watch the Velvet Buzzsaw trailer here[embedded content]
Gyllenhaal’s character, the wonderfully named Mort Vandewalt – other characters in Velvet Buzzsaw have equally excellent names, such as Rhodora Haze, Jon Dondon, Coco and Damrish – is the sort of person who takes particular pleasure in a poetic takedown, and isn’t above letting personal biases muddy his professional opinions.
At a funeral, he can’t help himself from critiquing the casket. “Imagine having to spend an eternity in that,” he says, expressing his dissatisfaction at the colour the bereaved have chosen. In another scene, he provides valuable clues about his cold thought process: “A bad review is better than sinking into the great glut of anonymity,” he says, with the conviction of a man who has often repeated this mantra to himself – perhaps to convince himself of its worth. There’s an element of truth in what he says.
Velvet Buzzsaw is Gyllenhaal’s second film with Gilroy after the tremendous Nightcrawler, for which he was robbed an Oscar nomination. His performance here is just as fully realised – like Lou Bloom, his Nightcrawler creep, and his Detective Loki from Prisoners and Johnny Wilcox from Okja, Gyllenhaal gives Mort everything he’s got. He walks with a ridiculously exaggerated gait, and his outward appearance is in complete disconnect to the sort of wimp Mort really is. In a couple of scenes, it seems as if Gyllenhaal has been possessed by the spirit of Nicolas Cage in one of his moods, such is the level of lunacy at which he is operating here.
Gilroy surrounds him with a supporting cast of characters that is just as fleshed out, and is as morally and ethically dubious as the men and women of Nightcrawler, and to a lesser extent, the middle film in Gilroy’s unconnected Los Angeles trilogy, Roman J Israel, Esq.
When one of them stumbles upon the works of a recently deceased, reclusive and unheralded artist named Vetril Dease, our story kicks into gear.
Velvet Buzzsaw is a deliriously entertaining and frighteningly pulpy movie, in which Gilroy attempts to understand the co-dependent relationship between critic and creator, and between art and commerce. Each of these absurd characters – Mort and Rhodora, an icy gallery owner played by Rene Russo; Jon, her rival; and Josephina, her business partner – find that their selfish and narcissistic decision to profit from Dease’s art has come to bite them in the butt.
In one of the film’s best tonal turns, it turns into a slasher movie midway through when this ensemble of bumbling idiots realises that they’re being hunted, one by one, by the same art with which they are obsessed. Gilroy, as you’d agree, paints his satire with quite the broad strokes.
Through all the bloodshed and gore, Gilroy’s message is clear: art will always win in its endless battle against the forces of commerce. And the critics will be subjected to the mental and physical torture that they deserve. Yikes.
But in fairness, he isn’t restricting his contempt to Mort. Velvet Buzzsaw is, in a way, also a form of criticism. It arrives in the middle of a very strong streak of prestige pictures produced by Netflix, which includes films by directors such as Paul Greengrass, the Coen Brothers, Alfonso Cuaron, Susanne Bier, Andy Serkis and David Mackenzie, and will continue next week with the new Steven Soderbergh movie.
Not bound by the restrictions that would typically be imposed on them by studios, these filmmakers have been allowed to flourish. Velvet Buzzsaw is a great example of just how kooky some directors can get, if given the opportunity.
First Published: Feb 04, 2019 13:02 IST