Trigger Warning: This review features details about gun violence.
Vox Lux is a fascinating and dangerous film about modern fame. It portrays in equal parts trauma and grandeur, with a tonal dissonance that can throw even the most experienced of movie-goers for a loop.
The film starts with a visceral depiction of a school shooting. Right after the whiplash that the audience inevitably endures during this scene, we closely follow our protagonist Celeste Montgomery (played by Raffey Cassidy), the only survivor of her class. She and her sister perform a balladic original song (written, like all original songs in Vox Lux, by Sia and Scott Walker) at the eulogy service in their hometown. It ends up on YouTube and unavoidably goes viral.
From this point on, the film shows Celeste’s rapid and determined rise to pop stardom. In competently executed and coldly affecting set pieces, we see the joy and excitement but also the alienation and transformation of an individual who decides to become a brand. Jude Law plays Celeste’s prototypical industry power broker who gets her on a plane, immediately after her first success, to build on this new star entity he starts to establish with her. Here, Vox Lux reaches new heights by maintaining the balance between Celeste’s own agency in corrupting her life and “The Manager,” as Law’s character is exclusively referred to in the film, and other industry people’s roles in her transformation.
The audience might see Celeste merely as a victim, with the shooting in the back of their minds. But she wants this just as much as any of the people who stand to benefit from her rise.
Cassidy excels in making Celeste neither jaded nor angelic in her portrayal, which humanizes the gradual corruption of this former victim. This section of the film is very engaging and well-observed. However, most viewers will probably not get the most out of it, as we are still mere minutes past and still dealing with the modern embodiment of trauma and destruction. Director Brady Corbet seems to want this alienation, and intended to have this effect on the audience. As he said himself: “nobody asked for it.”
The subject of mass shootings is one of the most problematic real life events to depict. Any time a director decides to feature it in their movie, they have to be aware of the myriad missteps and downsides that the depiction of such a jarring and universally painful event will bring with it.
There are good and bad examples of it in modern culture, but most of them are accused of being unnecessarily provocative or getting one of the many facets of the issue wrong. Too much style, too much brutality, too little of both, a gratuitous look at the perpetrator, disrespectful depiction of victims, the list goes on. Any creative who wants to address active shooters has the deck stacked against themselves.
Vox Lux is no exception. Its viewpoint from the victims’s side enhances the horror of the experience and the powerlessness of those targeted.
In small clues, the preparations of the shooter are hinted at. The economy of the scene and its decisions are well-observed and do not miss the disturbing effect it intends. Yet, with the rest of the film to follow, this jarring entry point to an overall jarring film will unavoidably color any viewer’s experience with the rest of the story.
The fault line of the movie then, the moment every viewer will have to decide if this is a complete misfire or something worthwhile despite its flaws, is the shift between the self-proclaimed “Act I: Genesis” and “Act II: Regenesis.” Herein we observe a second traumatic event in Croatia, where a group of men using masks from the merchandising of Celeste (now 31 years old and played by Natalie Portman), start shooting at a crowded beach.
The film addresses modern spin and the detached handling of real life events for ideal publicity. It will leave another bitter aftertaste and the inevitable question in the audience’s mind: “Was it worth it?”
Everyone will have to decide on their own whether this is the case or not. The subject affects people in different ways, and it would be reasonable to avoid the film altogether if you are even remotely connected to or disturbed by any violence of this kind.
Generally, Vox Lux does not carry enough emotional potency to deliver any meaningful catharsis to those audience members looking for it in order to ameliorate their shock and disturbed state. Especially when Corbet actually doubles down on disturbing violence with the second shooting.
The director’s intentions can be read as an artistic rendering of an increasingly jaded, apathetic public’s processing of the melting intersection of capital, fame and trauma.
Coming to mind are examples like Kanye West and his well-documented mental health issues, or the public defamation and attacks, both on- and offline, directed towards survivors of the Parkland shooting. The subjects he addresses are potent and speak to a truly prescient phenomenon. However, the way Vox Lux handles it will alienate more viewers than give cause for reflection.