Every satire of the for-profit art world makes largely the same points about that target, and Velvet Buzzsaw, the third film by writer-director Dan Gilroy, is not looking to break the habit. Oh, sure, it drags in the stuff of a slasher-style horror movie for its second hour, but it's still basically the same thing as e.g. 2017's Palme d'Or winner The Square, with the addition of CGI blood clouds. And even mixing in body count horror with art satire has been done before; that is, at heart, what Roger Corman's 1959 A Bucket of Blood was, and that film was already borrowing its central hook - the hot new artist uses human corpses as his raw material - from older films still.

So freshness is not by any means what Velvet Buzzsaw has to claim for itself. For that, it has to make do with basic, solid craftsmanship. This makes Gilroy three-for-three on that front: both 2014's Nightcrawler and 2017's Roman J. Israel, Esq. were rehashed social commentaries (neither as openly satiric as Velvet Buzzsaw, but neither free of a sense of humor) that relied primarily on Gilroy's terrific ear for stylised dialogue, cinematographer Robert Elswit's well-honed control of the camera (his three films with Gilroy are his best work of a not always exciting decade), and wonderful acting to give them their own distinct personality. The new film even brings back the powerhouse central duo from Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo, to take the main roles, and once again they've given simply exemplary performances under Gilroy's hand.

This is a bit more of an ensemble than that film, though (and far much more than Roman J. Israel, Esq., which was very much a Denzel Washington star vehicle), and there's not a weak link to be found. Indeed, whatver its other charms and frustrations, the cast is easily the best thing about Velvet Buzzsaw. The film starts out as a very mannered, talky look at the people who make the art industry go 'round: critic Morf Vandewalt (Gyllenhaal) is more or less the center of this, but there's also influential gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), her assistant and aspiring agent Josephina (Zawe Ashton), an up-and-coming artist named Damrish (Daveed Diggs), a faltering past-his-prime artist named Piers (John Malkovich), museum curator Gretchen (Toni Colette, whose severely straight, white wig is the star of the show), gallery jack-of-all-trades Bryson (Billy Magnusson), and the closest we get to someone who isn't reprehensible, Rhodora's disgraced former assistant Coco (Natalia Dyer). The story connected all these folks involves Josephina's discovery of a cache of art painted by a recently deceased man in her apartment building named Dease, who looks like a brilliant (or at least, readily-marketable) outsider artist, except for the unfortunate curse that the artist apparently levied against anyone who would try to materially profit form his work. But that story only emerges slowly; much of Velvet Buzzsaw's first, best half is entirely given over to watching terrible Angelinos interacting with each other as they go about their everyday jobs, which from the outside seems to be hugely weird and artificial and gross.

This is exactly the territory of Gilroy's first two movies, with a change of clothes: news, law, art, turns out they all attract the same kind of broken narcissists, in this worldview. What sets Velvet Buzzsaw apart, besides its unhesitant embrace of horror tropes in the second half, is the nasty, brittle sense of humor Gilroy uses here. The dialogue in the film is, I am certain, not to all tastes, though it is very much to mine: characters using nested clauses and three words for every one that's necessary, as though simply having complicated syntax is the same as being smart. Which it kind of is, since part of the film's point is that the impression one gives to the outside world is the same as the truth in this kind of surface-driven culture. Anyway, the point is that there's a clipped, wholly artificial quality to the dialogue, and it lives or dies on the actors' ability to recite it in ways that feel somewhat organic, while still clearly indicating the characters to be hollow simulacra of humanity. Some people have to do this more than the others, namely Gyllenhaal and Colette, and it's maybe not an accident that the actors who are best at it are the ones given the most lines like this; for my tastes, it's quite an extraordinary thing to see them behaving so robotically and yet so smoothly at the same time, gliding through the cadence of impossible lines and making it feel like they're coming up with these convoluted structures off the top of their heads. It's nihilistic, sort of kitschy, and funny as hell.

The arch dialogue fits in well with the arch style of the movie: Elswit uses awkwardly wide open framings with lots of negative space and a lot of shallow focus to further limit what we actually get to look at. It's a very bright, airy, white movie, but in an oppressive, unpleasant way; it looks sterile, without loudly proclaiming itself to be such. The point the filmmakers are getting at is obvious, of course (it is, in general, always obvious): the gallery spaces, and the manicured homes of the people fueling those galleries, are dead - the place we go to look at and admire art strangles all the vitality out of it and leaves it as a barren intellectual exercise. I suppose that's where the idea to bring in horror comes from: not much of a better way to convert a chill, inhuman, white space into something messy and organic than covering it with viscera. Or, in the film's moderately effective hook, by having artwork itself come to life to commit murder. I frankly don't think it works as horror, and the only excuse is that I'm not actually sure if it's trying; the mood is smirking more than scary, and too many of the death scenes are telegraphed well in advance for anyone to imagine they're suspenseful. It works as satire (Gilroy self-evidently despises the milieu he's depicting here), but it's kind of dumb and obvious as a thriller.

Which obviously has caused a good deal of disappointment (the film is already clearly not very well liked, and I'll admit that surprises me). But whatever, as a whirlwind tour of a bunch of assholes in the elaborately synthetic, inhuman world of art collecting, the film delighted me; whatever its failings otherwise have to compete with things like the perfection of how Gyllenhaal differentiates between fake smiles and real sneers, the unconscious mixture of cynicism and real admiration for art that Russo keeps evoking, the actively creepy site of paintings shifting through otherworldy CG animation, and a bunch of other little things. It's not trying to do all that much, but I find it does the one thing so well that it makes up for everything else.