“Velvet Buzzsaw” has an initial stance of satire. Writer/director Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler,” “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”) picks a rather easy target for mockery, the modern art scene, and showcases the lives of pretentious people trying to make their mark on a cutthroat world and collect a fortune in the process, wielding weapons of judgment and pettiness. Gilroy definitely has his moments of exaggeration, but he’s using the setting and the participants to create a horror film, delving into the genre with welcome strangeness and specificity. “Velvet Buzzsaw” doesn’t have many left turns, just a gradual tonal shift from art world commentary to blood-spurting terror, and Gilroy gets what he needs from the picture, though some viewers might come away disappointed that he doesn’t remain with the artists and their battle to survive social and professional tests of empathy.
Rhodora (Rene Russo) is a gallery owner looking for the next big thing in the modern art world. She’s powerful, using her steely focus to locate paintings and installations that could preserve her place as someone to fear in the industry. She’s often joined by art critic Morf (Jake Gyllenhaal), who monitors the scene, filing reviews that have the ability to make or break careers. Josephina (Zawe Ashton) is Rhodora’s assistant, watching her shot at joining her boss blown by personal problems. Returning home to drown her sorrows, Josephina discovers the dead body of elderly man Ventril Dease, with his apartment soon targeted for cleaning. When Josephina searches the filthy dwelling, she discovers a collection of haunting paintings she takes for herself, with hopes to sell them to galleries. Discovering the plan, Rhodora steps into broker deals, while Morf becomes obsessed with the ghoulish imagery, embarking on research to learn more about Dease and his dark, enigmatic history.
“Velvet Buzzsaw” is actually populated with a host of characters, keeping the feature on the move as it tracks the secret desires and fears of the players, who initially meet in Miami at an art convention, which showcases items and installations for sale -- like a boat show for snobs. Rhodora is searching for the next big thing, while Morf is paying a visit to be treated like royalty, with desperate agents and gallery owners looking to the writer to bless them with attention, which almost guarantees success. The best prospect is called “Sphere,” a large chrome orb that has the ability to assess dreams and darkness in those electing to stick their arms into its forbidding holes (think a highfalutin version of the Wood Beast trial from 1980’s “Flash Gordon”). The Miami trip sorts out several relationships, with Morf detailing his bisexuality by sleeping with Josephina, complicating their professional connection, and there’s Gretchen (Toni Collette), who works for a museum but desires to compete with Rhodora, admiring her business acumen and ability to print money in the art world, growing suspicious of her connection to Morf.
The action soon moves to Los Angeles, where Josephina discovers dead Dease and his apartment collection of hypnotic paintings, taking everything she can carry, formulating a plan to challenge Rhodora, who’s been critical of her assistant’s commitment to the cause. Dease’s vision is described as “violence and madness,” casting a spell on those coming into contact with the work, finding Morf especially twisted by the paintings, electing to create a book about the artist, whose troubled past is difficult to decode. Gilroy delights in the power plays of “Velvet Buzzsaw,” keeping high-strung characters passive-aggressively combative, and there’s an aside with Piers (John Malkovich), a once-celebrated artist who’s fallen on hard times, unable to find inspiration, watching the scene move on without him. It’s a somewhat poignant commentary on the longevity of this lifestyle, also grounding the feature with something resembling emotionality before the picture launches into scares.
“Velvet Buzzsaw” isn’t the sly satire of modern art “The Square” was, but Gilroy has a different end game for the screenplay, which indulges in exaggeration before sliding into gruesomeness. Gilroy isn’t exactly a master of horror, but the feature offers a few unsettling suspense sequences as certain works of art come to life to destroy the melted minds of those who’ve come into contact with Dease and his special material used for the paintings. In a way, “Velvet Buzzsaw” is “The Ring” for the art world, with Gilroy increasing graphic violence as it goes but still tending to criticisms, including the invented supply and demand dealings of gallery owners. Perhaps the helmer should’ve stayed in the real world, as he has a distinct vision for problematic personal conduct. However, the film ends up a genre exercise, and an enjoyable one, showcasing an unusual line-up of kills and death machines, sure to make any future trip to a museum a slightly uneasy one. I'm going to give "Velvet Buzzsaw" a 7 out of 10.