Netflix has an original films problem. Or perhaps it only has a film problem in relation to its original series content. Whatever the exact cause, most original movies produced by Netflix are mediocre at best. And at worst — when compared to award-winning Netflix series — they are stunningly disappointing. Netflix series such as Stranger Things, Black Mirror, and The Haunting of Hill House push the boundaries of traditional episodic television content. But their movies such as Bright, 1922, and now Velvet Buzzsaw fail to meet even the most basic expectations for films which leads to frequent backhanded compliments such as “this [Cam] felt like an okay episode of Black Mirror.”
Velvet Buzzsaw feels like an okay episode of Tales from the Crypt (I know, I know, it’s not a Netflix series!). The cinematography is of the cheap, made-for-TV variety. Robert Elswit served as the film’s cinematographer and with movies like There Will Be Blood and Nightcrawler under his belt, the flimsiness of the film’s visuals must have been a deliberate choice. And truthfully, that approach could have worked had the rest of the film dove headfirst into the B-level horror schlock. Instead, director Dan Gilroy seems hesitant to jump in the deep end. There are moments that the film is standing on the edge of the diving board ready to jump in, but backs out at the last second. Sometimes this happens quite literally as right before a moment that could be scary or gory, Gilroy cuts away to a separate shot or a new scene.
The allure of Velvet Buzzsaw is in its cast. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal in a re-pairing with Nightcrawler director Gilroy and featuring Rene Russo, John Malkovich, Toni Collete, it seemed that any shortcomings Buzzsaw may have would at least be buoyed by its star power. Sadly, it turns out that everyone is replaceable except for Gyllenhaal who is quite dynamic as aloof art critic Morf Vandewalt (that name!). The other actors and actresses are treated as one-dimensional side characters with no real purpose other than to just be there for something to happen to. Malkovich is so un-Malkovich-like that it warrants questioning why he was cast in a role that could have been played by anyone. And the underutilization of Daveed Diggs is nothing short of criminal.
There is a strange dichotomy to the film that never quite resolves itself. It tries to be a satire of the snobby vapidness of the art world while also trying to be a supernatural horror film. Though the critique of art criticism works better than the horror, the two halves never come together in any congruent fashion. One feels shoehorned into the film, but to be honest, I’m not sure which half it is. Velvet Buzzsaw is never intense or scary. It is not suspenseful or moody. It is not gory or schlocky. It is a high-concept idea with low-value execution that does not offer up anyone or anything to care about. It is a piece of art that I stared at for two hours and felt nothing the whole time.