Review: Vox Lux

VOX LUX was originally reviewed as part of our TIFF 2018 coverage. 

PLOT: The survivor of a school shooting becomes the world’s biggest pop star, but at what cost?

REVIEW: Brady Corbet’s VOX LUX is a tough film to review, as its effectiveness hinges on a twist that comes literally in the last minute of the film, making the whole thing worthwhile. If I were to say what it was, I’m sure more readers would want to see the movie, but I’d spoil an indelible surprise that left a major smile on my face as the credits rolled for a movie that, up to that point, I wasn’t sure that I enjoyed.

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Occasionally tedious, VOX LUX is a heavily stylized satire on fame, and a showcase not only for Natalie Portman’s much-praised performance, but also for co-stars Jude Law and, especially, young Raffey Cassidy, following-up on her turn in THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER. Cassidy starts off as our young heroine, Celeste, who, in 1999, survives a Columbine-style shooting that leaves her with a bullet lodged in her spine and constant pain for the rest of her life. The shooting itself is shown in a no holds barred, realistic fashion that will no doubt make audience members cringe, but that’s likely the point. You fully get the terror of the situation, as uncomfortable as it is.

From there, the young survivor becomes a media darling, especially after footage of her singing at a tribute ceremony is broadcast worldwide, immediately gaining her the attention of a drug-addled rock n’ roll manager who turns her into late-nineties style pop star. All this takes up about half of the film, with the second part picking up Celeste’s story eighteen years later, where she’s now played by Portman as a troubled pop queen with a hardcore drinking and drug problem, and a teenage daughter (in a neat trick – played by Cassidy) who doesn’t know her.

Rather than play this half of the story for pathos and tragedy, Corbet instead embraces high camp, with Portman mercilessly chewing scenery as the train-wreck star. She seems to be having a whale of a time, and for sure this will get her best supporting actress attention, but the movie belongs to Cassidy. It’s through her we see the rise, with her as the young Celeste, and then as a witness to the older Celeste’s decline.

Jude Law also has one of his better roles in a while as the wired manager, contrasting his high flying younger days with his slightly weather-beaten, middle aged version circa 2017. Fitting the quasi-camp style, Corbet shoots the movie in a tall, 1:66:1 aspect ratio, bringing to mind the films of seventies directors like Ken Russell (who I’m sure was an influence), while the song score by Sia effortlessly imitates the contrasting pop styles of 1999 and 2017.

Surface level, VOX LUX is a campy cult film, but it also felt like for much of the running time Corbet was holding back, which gives it an odd vibe. Only when he fully leans into the gonzo aspect of the genre did VOX LUX really do a number on me, and I have to give him credit for one of the most memorable denouements in years. It’s a mixed bag, but that ending is A+, as are some of the performances.