Back in 2014, critics were singing about “Nightcrawler,” written and directed by Dan Gilroy and starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Even though the film was Gilroy’s directorial debut, when he and Gyllenhaal combined their talents for the crime thriller, sparks flew. “Velvet Buzzsaw” finds the duo back together again, but the end product doesn’t quite measure up to their initial masterpiece.
For “Nightcrawler,” Gilroy created an intricate plot that follows the character Louis Bloom, a rudderless cameraman who roars through Los Angeles in a Dodge Challenger, on a mission to capture the bloodiest footage of mayhem he can and sell it to news stations. Gyllenhaal plays Bloom and is a spectacle on screen, with haunting, wide eyes and robotic mannerisms that creepily twitch and jerk.
Bloom is a character with a rocket-powered brain that erupts down blistering tangents, and Gyllenhaal’s delivery of the character’s inner madness is so believable it’s frightening. The main character is a true Machiavellian, manipulating and coercing his way into what he wants, regardless of the damage inflicted on others. Bloom is one of the most unorthodox protagonists the world has ever seen, and audiences get mesmerized by his wild story.
The plot itself is a rollercoaster ride of surprises, underlined with realistic themes like the human’s innate fascination with violence. The masterful story behind “Nightcrawler” is enhanced by captivating cinematography like thunderous action sequences and close-ups that illustrate the deeper messages of the film. After producing such a stunning thriller, the pairing of Gilroy and Gyllenhaal felt really special.
The hype surrounding Gilroy and Gyllenhaal after “Nightcrawler” reignited when talks of the pair teaming up again for a Netflix Original horror film surfaced. The subsequent product, “Velvet Buzzsaw,” contrasts greatly with the previous film; it is a horror movie rather than a thriller, there is a much larger web of characters and Gyllenhaal plays a character almost entirely opposite to Bloom.
“Velvet Buzzsaw” presents audiences with Gyllenhaal as Morf Vandewalt, a shrewd art critic who is upbeat and empathetic, unlike the outcast narcissist we meet in “Nightcrawler.” In this film, instead of the protagonist trying hard to gain allies, the audience watches Gyllenhaal either defer or absorb the desperate needs of others. However, despite the many differences between these characters, they both share one central, binding trait: They gain wealth and satisfaction at the expense of others’ pain.
Gilroy is fascinated by the sadist elements of human nature, seen in how they constitute the main characters’ livelihoods in two out of three films he has directed. Bloom makes his money by filming the attacked, hurt and murdered, while Vandewalt makes a living by critiquing artists’ work, which in turn harms the their legacies and emotional well-being.
Unlike “Nightcrawler,” which ends with a paltry resolution, “Velvet Buzzsaw” confronts the protagonist’s lack of concern for others in an especially rich scene near the end, mercifully allowing the audience some closure. The way “Nightcrawler” fails to develop Bloom, or evolve him from start to finish, is a shortcoming that “Velvet Buzzsaw” indisputably improved on.
How Do They Measure Up?
Both films are well-researched and well-written. In “Nightcrawler,” Gilroy armed Bloom with trending business and management concepts, which he uses to expand his “news gathering” company in the film. Gilroy also crafts a convincing news network with a bevy of broadcasting terminology implemented in the news workers’ dialogue. Similarly, “Velvet Buzzsaw” uses niche art terminology while the plot exhibits an in-depth understanding of the industry and its branches, from museums to dealers, artists and critics.
Although the horror film fixed one shortcoming of its predecessor, “Velvet Buzzsaw” has a few loose ends of its own. For instance, in the first half of the film, most of the characters are fixated on the idea of substance abuse as the gateway to successful art, but the theme doesn’t follow through.
In the film, artists have quit art entirely to avoid substances and newly sober artists are struggling to produce thought-provoking work. The film initially incessantly pushes the theme but utterly abandons the concept in later scenes, which leaves the audience scratching their heads as to why it was so pivotal to the plot in the first place. There are several other unkept promises in the motion picture’s scrambled script that give the film a bloated feeling, contrasting strongly with the tight-knit story of “Nightcrawler.”
Another flaw in “Velvet Buzzsaw” is its lack of exciting action and realistic scares. The horror aspect of the film surrounds haunted paintings crafted with blood that were left behind by a mysterious amateur artist, but the film rarely experiments with computer-generated imagery to move the paintings’ figures. Disappointingly, the phantom movements of the paintings the audience does see are inferior to much of the terrifying animation already available in horror.
There is also something naturally unimpressive about watching a person get pulled into a painting, as there is no struggle and consequently no suspense as to whether they can survive or not. When there is action, it is unexciting and the sequences are low-budget thrills, perhaps because they blew their budget on the astounding number of acclaimed actors.
Overall, the film is scattered, partially due to the handful of incomplete themes but also because of the wide web of characters. While “Nightcrawler” strictly follows its main protagonist, “Velvet Buzzsaw” bounces hastily between perspectives so often that it fails to imbue the story with significance.
Combined with the horror’s inferior premise, the flaws of “Velvet Buzzsaw” are clearly detrimental to the film and make it a distant croak in the dark compared to “Nightcrawler.”