Nightcrawler was an incredible directorial debut for Dan Gilroy and it featured a fantastic performance of Jake Gyllenhaal. His second film, however, was received less well and was perceived as boring by quite a few people. Still, when Velvet Buzzsaw was announced, I got quite excited, as he was teaming up again with Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo, who both played big factors in what made Gilroy’s debut film as good as it was. When it finally premiered at Sundance to relatively good reviews, I was quite sure that I’d like the film. Unfortunately, I didn’t.
Let’s start this review off with the two things that I liked the most from Gilroy’s first film: the acting and the characters. In Nightcrawler, Gilroy wrote a very interesting anti-hero for its protagonist and Gyllenhaal managed to portray him in a very unsettling and complex manner. In Velvet Buzzsaw, Gyllenhaal, unsurprisingly still gave a great, charismatic and likable performance, though it’s the rest of the cast that falls in his shadow. He added more depth to his lackluster character via his performance, while others didn’t. From the remaining cast members, Zawe Ashton, in particular, wasn’t all that great. She constantly had the same face in every scene she was in, delivering her lines in a very monotone fashion, and when she had to cry, it came across as if she was pretending to cry, and when your performance feels like you are pretending to be someone, it’s a sign that your performance might not be all that great. Toni Colette and Rene Russo were both fine, as was John Malkovich, but none of them managed to give the same quality performance that Gyllenhaal was able to deliver.
As for the characters themselves, they were quite bad. I didn’t find myself caring for the majority of the characters at all. I only liked Gyllenhaal’s Morf because of the performance behind him rather than because of the way that he was written. All of the characters are caricatures of cliches, which is fine, though they’re never given something that we as an audience can latch on to. They’re never developed beyond the caricature. We’re never given a reason why we should care about them. Save for their professions, we basically never learn anything more about these characters. Morf is an art critic and bisexual, which is basically all there is to him, and because of these two “character traits”, he’s, unfortunately, the most developed character of the film. Some of the characters undergo an arc, but it’s handled very sloppily and at times even out of the blue. Some arcs are also never even completed. Additionally, nearly all of the characters are ignorant, selfish assholes, so why would we care for them? My lack of empathy for them made the supposedly suspenseful scenes a whole lot less tense than they were intended to be. It didn’t matter if they died or not, because I just didn’t care. Also, John Malkovich’s character was completely useless and there was no need to have him in the film. His scenes were just dead space in an already relatively empty film.
Another thing that I liked from Nightcrawler, was its dark and suspenseful atmosphere that it kept throughout the whole film. Velvet Buzzsaw, however, is tonally a bit all over the place. It’s both a satire and a horror film, though Gilroy doesn’t manage to balance these two contrasting ideas well enough, which leads to a tonal conflict. It switches between comedy and horror, but due to this, the horror scenes often fell flat. Every comedic scene continuously detracts from the suspense build up earlier and the film has to start again from scratch every time it wants to be suspenseful again.
The horror aspect of the film wasn’t great in the first place either. While it was uninspiring, there were some cool ideas. The execution of the deaths was often quite lacking, especially in its visual presentation. Again, there were some nice ideas, but due to flat cinematography, these images lost a lot of strength. Additionally, I wasn’t really a fan of how they always cut away before that the person actually died, as showing practically no gore didn’t help in creating a horrific tone. Furthermore, the deaths were often predictable, which again took away from the suspense. However, I did like the whole “consumed by art” metaphor that was often applied to the people who died. The satire used in the film was also quite fun, and some of the dark comedy worked really well, it’s the inability to blend horror and satire together that takes away from the film overall quality.
The film is just a bit lost as to what it wants to be, both tonally speaking, but also in the story it tries to tell, or the lack thereof. There’s very little coherency between what’s happening, and it feels like nothing actually has happened. It’s just a series of events with a whole bunch of scenes that do not really affect the overall “plot”. The film doesn’t seem to find one central protagonist whose “story” is the most important. Now there are a bunch of undeveloped characters, while it would’ve been better if they had focused on one character, instead of the ones that we have now.
Personally, I would’ve liked if they focused more on Gyllenhaal’s character as his story was quite interesting and he was, in fact, looking for answers to the mystery the film presents. As mentionened before, he was also the only character for which I slightly gave a shit, but, again, this was more thanks to Gyllenhaal’s performance than to the writing. If they made him the protagonist and deleted some of the characters that do not really influence the “story”, I think that the film would’ve been a lot better. In Gyllenhaal’s story, we’re given a slight tease about the unraveling mystery, but it’s then quickly glossed over, and we do not learn any more information after a handful of scenes. If they had focused on Gyllenhaal’s investigation, the film would’ve been more compelling and make more sense. Even if they didn’t focus on one character, they could’ve just used the dead space in the film to explain certain things, rather than for unnecessary characters or scenes.
I also didn’t really like that there was no real resolution. We’re left with a lot of questions and very little explanation. Not even enough so that you can figure things out on your own. It would’ve been fine if there was any consistency with the people who died and how they died, but there wasn’t any. It’s still unclear how everything in this universe works. Sure we’re given theory, but it’s just a theory after all and said theory doesn’t really line up with how some people come to die or why they died in the first place. Just a little bit more info would’ve been nice, and that would’ve been possible if we had focused on Gyllenhaal’s story.
The film’s visual presentation wasn’t all that great either. It’s visually quite uninspiring except for a handful of shots. This was usually due to how it was lit. It often resembled the way that they light a sit-com, making everything look super clean, which just didn’t fit with the film. It looks very flat and boring, which is something you wouldn’t come to expect from a film about art.
However, I did like the costuming, as it fitted the pretentious characters pretty well. The score was atmospheric and suspenseful and it helped to generate that darker tone the film sometimes strives for, though that tone is then ruined by comedic moments or one of the other factors mentioned before. The sets could also be quite cool, making use of vibrant colors and some hidden messages, though it’s the way that they’re shot that doesn’t do them justice.
Velvet Buzzsaw is comparable to last year’s Mute in the sense that I was really looking forward to it but ultimately left feeling disappointed. It’s better than that film, though still, it isn’t all that great. While the film had potential and there were a lot of great ideas, the execution was really lacking and some of the decisions they made messed up the great ideas they had. It feels like a much worse version of Under the Silver Lake, which also had two contrasting tones, though that film managed to balance them better and it also had a central story, an interesting protagonist, a gorgeous visual presentation, and a whole bunch of original ideas that were executed with a lot of care. So if you want to watch a film that Velvet Buzzsaw sort of strives to be tonally speaking, I’d recommend Under the Silver Lake. If you want to watch a not-so-great film and feel rather disappointed when the credits start to roll, then Velvet Buzzsaw is the film for you.