Jordan Peele’s directorial debut Get Out became the breakout film of 2018 through its piercing, literal commentary of the unconscious racism that still pervades the predominantly white America. On the outset, Get Out uses all the tropes of a neoclassic horror thriller in its premise where Daniel Kaluuya, who plays Chris, goes out to meet his white girlfriend’s family which acts strangely around him, going out of their way to appreciate his physique and talents as a photographer. In a party thrown by the family, some of the white people bring along their black partners. While photographing one of the mixed couples, the flash goes off inadvertently and the black boyfriend yells out at Chris asking him to “Get out!”. As it happens (spoiler alert: turn back if you haven’t watched the film yet), the white family had been transplanting the brains of their white partners into the bodies of black men so that they could acquire their physical structure and insights. As horrifying and twisted as it sounds, it is a direct satire on the way white Americans have repackaged black culture as a commodity that needs to be acquired. Although this is a niche genre in itself, it is not new. The 2010 horror comedy Tucker and Dale vs. Evil also touched upon the American pop-culture prejudice about rednecks being stupid and murderous, where Tucker and Dale are two gentle rednecks who are characterized as murderers by a bunch of college kids who ultimately end up hurting themselves through freak mishaps.
Written and directed by Dan Gilroy, Velvet Buzzsaw revolves around a fraternity of Art-sellers and critics who make their living through an art-lobby that transmogrifies artists into maestros with the sole purpose of extracting the highest price for their work. Morf Vandewalt is a reputed art-critic and works in nexus with Rhodora who is an art-seller. Rhodora tasks her employee Josephina to find artwork that can be added to their distinguished portfolio, helping build their brand while Vandewalt critiques them, priming them up for a sale. The narrative that begins as a faux art-society revolving around a group of snobs, takes a strange turn when Josephina stumbles upon the body of an old man on the stairs in her apartment building. She asks a neighbour to call 911 and walks into the dead man’s apartment curious to see how he lived. As it appears, the old man was an artist himself and had left behind a large collection of his work stowed away inside cupboards. Josephina is mesmerized by the paintings and shows them to Rhodora and Morf who are equally captivated. Soon after, Rhodora’s agency sets up an Vetril Dease (name of the dead artist) exhibit that becomes highly popular. As buyers clamour to get their hands on a Dease, freak accidents start happening to art-sellers killing them off one by one in the manner of their own art installations.
Velvet Buzzsaw sets up a unique narrative where a dead artist’s artwork brings wrath upon a materialistic society that has reduced art to mere items of acquisition. This is also an unconscious jibe at the Instagram world and the overall social media culture that has reduced art and creativity into a bunch of ‘likes’. The value of an artwork is the validation it receives now. However, the execution of this sentiment does not follow through with the anticipation that it creates. As it teeters the boundaries of satire, comedy and horror, all three elements do not get the same amount of attention. The result comes off as a satire that is trying to be a comedy that can’t transition into horror. Some of scenes that could have made for some classic horror are shown as glimpses and not pursued as much as I would have liked. Add to that the misplaced cringe-worthy lines such as – “We have a f**king problem. Literally.” which Josephina quips while she and Morf are having sex, just breaks the mood of the film.
Jake Gyllenhaal as Morf Vanderwalt is great as a nerdy, eccentric, bisexual art-critic and adds to the quirk of the narrative. From a confident, know-it-all critic, he is reduced to a quivering man who is now afraid of paintings. Rene Russo as Rhodora is greed personified as an art-seller. Zawe Ashton as Josephina is measured in her portrayal of a diffident protege of Rhodora who is learning the ropes and also learning to navigate the twisted lanes of the art-society. As a film, Velvet Buzzsaw feels like a wannabe version of Get Out which basically asks art-sellers to get out of any connection to Dease’s paintings while trying to perpetrate the satiric premise. However, it comes nowhere near to the fabulous writing and screenplay that Peele had crafted. Buzzsaw could have been delicious if it had given a bit more attention to the horror element of it. There are several unanswered questions as well such as – Why and how were the paintings able to kill people ? What really happens to Dease ? When you are marketing a film based on that element, it bodes well for you to do justice to it.