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Velvet Buzzsaw, now on Netflix, takes on the contemporary art world with claws out

The gonzo horror-comedy stars Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, John Malkovich, Daveed Diggs, Toni Collette, and more.

Rene Russo and Jake Gyllenhaal in Velvet Buzzsaw.
Rene Russo and Jake Gyllenhaal in Velvet Buzzsaw.
Claudette Barius/Netflix
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every week, new original films debut on Netflix and other streaming services, often to much less fanfare than their big-screen counterparts. Cinemastream is Vox’s series highlighting the most notable of these premieres, in an ongoing effort to keep interesting and easily accessible new films on your radar.

Velvet Buzzsaw

The premise: A trove of paintings is found in the apartment of a dead man, and the art world jumps into action to claim them and sell them. But the paintings seem to exert a curious — and maybe supernatural — force of their own. Carnage ensues.

What it’s about: Velvet Buzzsaw is a star-studded satirical horror-comedy from director Dan Gilroy, who’s teamed up once again with his Nightcrawler star Jake Gyllenhaal to tell a dark, sometimes bawdy story set in the contemporary arts scene. Gyllenhaal plays an art critic entangled in a relationship with an aspiring gallerist (Zawe Ashton), who’s working with an established dealer (Rene Russo), who’s locked in a battle to represent big artists with another dealer (Tom Sturridge), who’s thinking of hiring his nemesis’s former assistant (Natalia Dyer) ...

And it spirals outward from there. Other characters include a famous but blocked artist (John Malkovich), an up-and-comer looking for wider recognition (Daveed Diggs), a museum curator turned cutthroat private adviser to an art collector (Toni Collette), and a lot more.

If that sounds like the plot of a rambling Robert Altman movie, that’s because it sort of is — but weirder, more cynical, and admittedly a little more hamfisted. Velvet Buzzsaw is about greed, narcissism, and posturing in the world of contemporary art, filtered through the eyes of resolutely unlikable people, and while it doesn’t really add up to much, it’s darkly enjoyable as long as you’re into all that.

Critical consensus: Velvet Buzzsaw currently has a score of 61 on Metacritic. At Vulture, Emily Yoshida writes that “it’s clear between this and Nightcrawler that Gilroy and Gyllenhaal have some kind of gonzo chemistry. Even if Velvet Buzzsaw starts to sputter slightly after it’s made its point, it’s plenty exciting to witness the incredibly specific madness they whip up together.”

Where to watch: Velvet Buzzsaw is streaming on Netflix.