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Suffering for your art – ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’

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Cinematic reunions are rarer than you think. While there are a few Coen-esque or Andersonian (Wes or Paul Thomas, take your pick) stables of performers out there, the truth is that these sorts of filmmaking teams don’t turn up all that often.

That relative rarity is a big part of what makes the new film “Velvet Buzzsaw” so intriguing. Writer/director Dan Gilroy has brought back the two stars of his 2014 offering “Nightcrawler” – Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo – for this one, a genre-bending story of creeping horror set amidst the backdrop of the contemporary art world.

Combining elements of satire and social commentary with horror tropes and a gleefully needling deflation of the self-indulgent self-seriousness of the high-end artistic realm, “Velvet Buzzsaw” is a film that is undeniably itself. The component parts don’t always mesh as well as they might, but the overall experience is an engaging one that will appeal to a weirdly disparate audience.

Gyllenhaal is Morf Vandewalt (yes, really), an acclaimed art critic whose reviews have been known to make or break entire careers. One word from him can send sale prices into the stratosphere or crater the market. Russo is Rhodora Haze (yes, really), an art dealer who is one of the biggest movers and shakers in the Los Angeles art scene as well as a former member of the influential post-punk band Velvet Buzzsaw.

The two have a long-standing relationship, but their interests also overlap in the person of Josephina (Zawe Ashton, TV’s “Wanderlust”); she’s Rhodora’s assistant and Morf’s taste-sharer/occasional lover. However, the dynamic shifts dramatically when Josephina comes across an elderly man dead in the hallway of her apartment building. Upon further investigation, she discovers that the man – Vitril Dease – was an incredibly gifted and heretofore completely unknown artist. When she learns that he left instructions for all of his work to be destroyed, she gathers up as much as possible and spirits it away.

Everyone who sees the work of Dease is utterly enthralled by it. Morf is captivated by it, while Rhodora sees dollar signs. Meanwhile, some of the people in their orbit – museum curator Gretchen (Toni Collette, “Hereditary”), renowned painter Piers (John Malkovich, “Bird Box”), hot new up-and-coming artist Damrish (Daveed Diggs, “Wonder”) and various and sundry others – are also enraptured in various ways by the haunting work of Dease.

But it soon becomes clear that there’s much more to these works than mere artistry. Mysterious tragedies begin to befall everyone connected with the salvage and sale of Dease’s work. Something inexplicable and sinister is simmering beneath the surface, with everyone drawn into the web suffering great consequences. And no one – not Morf, not Rhodora, not Josephina – no one knows what to do about it.

Put simply, “Velvet Buzzsaw” is a weird movie. The first half-hour or so reads as a straightforward and quite funny takedown of the contemporary art world, taking great delight in establishing these figures driven by hypersensitive self-importance and overinflated ego. It’s a world where everyone desperately seeks to be seen as superior to those around them, an entertaining snapshot of the inherent ludicrousness of the contemporary art scene; I took particular delight in the ridiculous names.

But then, Gilroy and company start dropping in the horror and suspense elements – there’s some creepy tension-building, a few jump scares and a surprising amount of gore. And there are a number of Chekhov’s Gun-type situations established at the film’s beginning that payoff in unexpected ways. It gets bizarre and brutal in an interesting way. It doesn’t always work, but it’s always making an effort; the pieces just refuse to cleanly fit together.

It’s a dynamite cast, obviously. Anyone with eyes can see that. Gyllenhaal absolutely goes for it as Morf. His smug self-importance is apparent with every exhalation, every affectation. There might not be anyone else in Hollywood who embodies weirdos as fully and effectively as he does; certainly no leading man-types. Russo brings her own uniqueness to the table, her glow of self-confidence masking foundational cracks. There’s a brand of no-nonsense that she projects – cold-blooded and captivating. Ashton holds her own with a couple of heavyweights as the third leg of the central trio; she is demure and thoughtful before transitioning into egotistical entitlement, becoming a haughty hottie, if you will.

The supporting players are great as well. Malkovich and Diggs are fantastic as the two ends of the big-time artist’s journey; one the burnt-out sellout, the other the overly-precocious idealist. Collette gives her standard awesome performance; she’s as consistently excellent as anyone working today. Natalia Dyer, Tom Sturridge and Billy Magnussen are all outstanding as well.

“Velvet Buzzsaw” is both campy and sincere, if such a thing is possible. It goes over the top in just about every way, yet still manages to feel somewhat grounded. It’s an art world satire and supernatural thriller. It is strange and compelling and riddled with imperfections, but then again, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If nothing else, it’s a project worthy of bringing these talented people together again.

A wise man once said, “I may not know art, but I know what I like.” For what it’s worth, I like “Velvet Buzzsaw.”

[4 out of 5]

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