Writer-director Brady Corbet’s new movie, Vox Lux, is the most fascinating mixed bag of 2018. As with his directorial debut, The Childhood of a Leader (2015), Corbet has big intentions for his follow-up but lacks the subtlety and ability to modulate to, thus far, make his films connect in a meaningful way with audiences. The result is Vox Lux: the most existentially, spiritually, and aesthetically chilly film in recent memory.
Vox Lux begins at the dawn of the twenty-first century, in a pre-credits sequence depicting a school shooting on Long Island. As a filmmaker, Corbet is fascinated with allegory; the Long Island school shooting doesn’t seem like a direct reference to any single one of the horrific multitude of school shootings that have ravaged the American landscape since Columbine in 1999, but instead an amalgamation, or generalization, of all of them. While this scene is sure to serve as an emotional gut-punch for everyone in the audience, the generalization of the event makes it feel unfortunately disingenuous.
In this opening scene, Corbet sets the tone for the rest of his movie. The intention of the school shooting is not necessarily to shock (though it certainly does) but to demarcate a moment in US history as the beginning of the end. Personally, as a high school kid in 1999, the Columbine shooting felt, even at the moment, like a seismic shift in American culture, a loss of innocence — a feeling that was further reinforced two years later on 9/11, watching the news roll in from New York while sitting in high school science class. Though there were other (read: many) school shootings before Columbine and though there were other acts of domestic terror before 9/11, these events acquired mythology in American culture, spurred by the just-developing twenty-four-hour news cycle.
For Celeste (played wonderfully by both Natalie Portman and Raffey Cassidy), these two moments also represent the point when the curtain was peeled back and hope and innocence retreated. The events of 9/11 are referenced both fleetingly and poignantly in the film, and they represent the last morning of Celeste’s childhood, figuratively and cinematically. After a brief narrative interruption by Willem Dafoe, who fills in the intervening years between 2001 and the present, the film returns to Celeste as an adult, played now by Portman, who has just recently entered the downslope of her career as a pop star after a series of personal (and very public) mishaps and a hiatus from performing.
The adult Celeste is a person almost wholly unrecognizable from her younger self. She has been hardened and shaped by her experiences as a pop star. Her youth and precociousness have been replaced by mistrust and ego. In private, she swings between paranoia and anger; in public, she speaks in absurdist rhetoric reminiscent of Kanye West and Donald Trump.
This confluence between the United States’ current political climate and popular music is the heart of Vox Lux’s thesis, and it is also, perhaps, the film’s biggest narrative misstep. Corbet’s argument is that popular culture, and specifically music, has impacted the American identity in such a way that we find it difficult to communicate in non-reflective ways. In other words: A pop singer makes a song about celebrating “the self.” This message is then adopted and transmogrified by marketers and politicians into rhetoric, blasted out in advertisements and on the news, and, finally, adopted by the general population — leading to an era of intense ego. But this confluence is, like Corbet’s depiction of the school shooting in the first act, a generalization at best, and a specious fallacy at worst. Music, and other forms of art, don’t really directly impact society quite in the way that Corbet portrays in the movie. In fact, it’s really the other way around, in that rhetoric is more likely to influence popular art forms. This speciousness mirrors the unintentional disingenuousness of the movie as a whole. The movie tries to identify a scapegoat for the current state of egocentric American discourse, settling on pop music as, essentially, an easy target.
However, none of this is to say that Vox Lux isn’t worth seeing. No movie this year has left me with the same sense of dread and anger as Corbet’s movie did. I walked out of the theater feeling triggered, angered, and tremendously saddened, because it accurately, if hyperbolically, reflects American culture. If you are an older millennial, of Celeste’s approximate age, you will remember, and relive, the moments of Celeste’s adolescence and empathize with the way these moments shaped and changed her for the worse. It is a movie that will stick with you long after the curtain drops.
And it would be a disservice to the actors not to mention the fantastic performances across the board in this movie, from Portman and Cassidy (who plays the dual role of young Celeste and Celeste’s daughter, Albertine) to Jude Law as Celeste’s longtime manager, and Stacy Martin as Celeste’s sister, not to mention the minor roles, like Maria Dizzia as a schoolteacher gunned down in the opening scene. Willem Dafoe, as the omnipresent narrator, also offers up a sterling performance, even if the narration does a disservice to the movie as a whole; indeed, Dafoe’s unmistakable voice makes Vox Lux feel like the movie Wes Anderson would make if he lost all hope. And though the Scott Walker’s drone soundtrack feels at times tonally out-of-sync with the movie, providing an air of artificial dread throughout, it’s outstanding when taken on its own.
In the end, Vox Lux is an uneven film at best. But it is also probably the most fascinating, necessary movie (along with Assassination Nation) that you most likely won’t see this year. The superb acting, chilling soundtrack, and Brady Corbet’s high reaching, if sophomoric, intentions make it a required viewing experience.