Jake Gyllenhaal Unravels in L.A. Art Scene Horror ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’

The Los Angeles art scene is the setting for Netflix original “Velvet Buzzsaw,” a horror film that satirizes the city’s artists and critics alike. The title comes from the name of Rhodora Haze’s (Rene Russo) old band, a determined woman who reinvented herself as a powerful gallery owner after aging out of the punk rock scene. The works of art she deals live and die by the reviews of one Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is just as pretentious and arrogant as his name implies. Early on, Morf ditches his longtime male partner and jumps into bed with Josephina (Zawe Ashton), Rhodora’s long-suffering employee. Things take a turn after Josephina’s upstairs neighbor, Vetril Dease, dies and leaves behind a trove of fascinating paintings. As luck would have it, he has no family and friends, so it falls on Josephina to incite a buying frenzy. Nevermind that it turns out that the deeply disturbed Dease, who we find out spent time in a mental institution after killing his abusive father, requested that all his works be destroyed after his death. Greed takes over, and these paintings prove to have a hefty price.

Although, the L.A. art world is not as cutthroat and incesteous as the dramatized one created here by writer/director Dan Gilroy (“Nightcrawler”), it sure is fun to imagine that there’s an art critic out there who inspired Morf. After Josephina moves on to buff artist Damrish (Daveed Diggs), he makes sure his replacement feels the full extent of his wrath, declaring that his respect for his work has “greatly diminished.” Gyllenhaal, who usually portrays characters more self-effacing, is fun to watch here, as he plays a man so conceited that he believes getting a bad review from him is better than nothing. Taken hold of by what he believes to be an evil phantom that has come from Dease’s paintings, he descends into madness.

Gilroy creates a colorful cast of characters here, most of them totally disconnected from reality, including controlling gallery manager Gretchen (Toni Collette), self-important art handler Bryson (Billy Magnussen), abused assistant Coco (Natalia Dyer), art agent Jon (Tom Sturridge) and star artist Piers (John Malkovich). The plot takes a sharp turn a third of the way in after one of these people is killed in a freak accident while looking at a Dease painting, and the body count piles on from there. There’s not nearly enough time to flesh all these characters, which makes it easier to take when several of them die in creative ways. In one of the more darkly comedic sequences, a key character is killed by a malfunctioning installation, and those visiting this hot new exhibit mistake the corpse for part of the display.

As most of the characters in “Velvet Buzzsaw” are so self-absorbed and pretentious, viewers will have a hard time identifying with them or really caring about their fates. The only remotely relatable one is Coco, a recent college grad who does what she can to hold her own in a sea of crazies. When the plot goes completely off the rails in the final moments, she makes the sanest choice possible.

In the end, “Velvet Buzzsaw” suffers from an overly ambitious script that doesn’t quite know what it wants to be. Despite the title, Rhodora’s punk past isn’t sufficiently tied in, and the final moments feel messy and rushed, as the remaining characters swiftly meet their fates, à la “Final Destination.”

Velvet Buzzsaw” premieres Feb. 1 on Netflix.