"When I hear the word 'gallery,' I get my buzzsaw out..."
That could very well have been the pitch for this atypical film, which oscillates between humor and horror, premiered at Sundance this past January. The story begins in Miami, at Art Basel, where super influential and incorruptible critic Morf Vandewalt, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is searching for new talent. The movie's premise and vile characters are quickly introduced: Josephina, the ambitious assistant (Zawe Ashton), Rhodora Haze, the ex-punk turned internationally renowned art gallerist (Rene Russo), the vain hipster gallerist Jon Dondon (Tom Sturridge), Gretchen, the museum curator on her way to becoming a billionaire's personal advisor (Toni Collette), Piers, the artist whose sobriety has cost him inspiration (John Malkovich), Coco, the unlucky assistant (Natalia Dyer) and Damrish, the rising street artist (Daveed Diggs).
However, this collection of clichés is interrupted by an unexpected element: the unknown artist whose incredible work Josephina discovers by chance when he dies. Vetril Dease, a reclusive old man with a mysterious past, leaves behind a chaotic atelier that resembles that of Francis Bacon, on top of hundreds of autobiographical, violent and fascinating paintings. Any resemblance to the extraordinary story of Henry Darger, whose prolific work was found after his death in Chicago in 1973 by his bewildered concierge, is apparently fortuitous.
Unsurprisingly, Vetril Dease, who is suspected of having been a murderer or even a psychopath, requested that his entire production be destroyed after his death. But obviously, Josephina and her boss Rhodora take it, expose it and speculate on its value (notably lying about the number of pieces in existence to raise their value). Director Dan Gilroy sought inspiration from HBO documentary The Price of Everything, to portray these dubious practices of unscrupulous people in the art world.
Then, to the relief of the viewer, who by then is probably dying of irritation from so many insufferable characters, the film turns to horror, Giallo-style, escalating with references to The Picture of Dorian Gray (paintings that bleed—alive or not?), Chucky (for the automaton), Poltergeist (for the flashing bulbs), Scream (for the phone in the glass villa), Christine (for the objects get revenge), Theatre of Blood (a B movie with Vincent Price) and even—call me crazy—The Twilight Zone.
We'll never find out if Vetril Dease was an evil person or if he was simply a victim who produced diabolical works (quite creative in their revenge and selective since they seem to spare the "real" artists). Dan Gilroy leaves a lot of questions unanswered: he handles the fantastic and farce well, and which makes Velvet Buzzsaw a little much, but still pretty enjoyable.