Brady Corbet takes our pop culture escapism to task with the provocative, fascinating Vox Lux

Natalie Portman and Raffey Cassidy | Neon

Natalie Portman and Raffey Cassidy | Neon

This review is part of Reel Nine’s coverage of the 41st Denver Film Festival. You can find reviews of other films at the festival here.

If you’re looking for a key to unlock the dark heart of Vox Lux, the latest film from former actor turned writer-director Brady Corbet (The Childhood of a Leader), you’ll find it not in any scene with stars Natalie Portman (Black Swan) or Raffey Cassidy (The Killing of a Sacred Deer) but in a stationary shot of the Freedom Tower. Standing stalwart against the sky, the building which serves as a sort of memorial to the events of September 11, 2001 lays motionless in the frame, the drone of a gloomy soundtrack echoing through the theater. In this brief moment, which takes place in-between moments of unhinged rage from the pop diva Portman dutifully brings to life, Corbet offers a quiet example of modern society’s penchant for pop culture escapism, burying grief under the shiny allure of the new.

That’s not to say Corbet finds pop culture and terrorism as intrinsically linked with one causing the other, but he does find their close proximity to one another as increasingly important historical signifiers to be a fascinating and not at all accidental pairing. His script, which follows the rise of a young school shooting survivor named Celeste (Cassidy) into her tumultuous adulthood as a tortured pop superstar (Portman), is tinged with equal parts condemnation and understanding, engulfed in an air of disgust over the instant gratification-era leading to short memories but also aware of the immense emotional impact pop culture can leave on our lives. It’s a provocative piece of cultural criticism, one that doesn’t always entirely land but has more interesting questions on its mind than most films about music (or societal norms for that matter).

The film is destined to be polarizing, not only for its abstract thesis but also for its shocking opening moments, which is perhaps the most visceral and upsetting depiction of a school shooting that may ever be filmed. It’s not without purpose, however, as Corbet uses it to open up an exploration of an onslaught of very American horrors, from the very public airing of our traumas to the romanticization of tragedy. Celeste, deemed relatively unremarkable but always possessing that “something” by prophetic narration from Willem Dafoe (At Eterntiy’s Gate), is a catalyst for the national grief over the shooting she survived, thrust into the spotlight when she performs a memorial song with her older sister Ellie (Stacy Martin, Nymphomaniac) in a nationally televised moment of grief formed into artistic expression. Quickly Celeste is in the midst of a record deal, preparing and album and a tour under the tutelage of a sharp-tongued manager (Jude Law, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald), forced to grow up before she’s ready to even process her obvious survivor’s guilt and pain. It’s sold well by Cassidy, whose gives Celeste a believable naivete and sweetness that is prime real estate for mass consumption. In one poignant moment, Celeste explains her reasoning for playing along with the push for her to be a pop star, saying, “I don’t want people to think too hard. I just want them to feel good.” On paper it could seem like a lazy jab at the studio manufacturing of radio-ready bangers, but Cassidy delivers the line with a genuine sincerity that she exposes the real ethos of how Corbet views popular music as emotional catharsis and how that heartbreaking and complex act of musical release isn’t vapid but necessary. While not as entertaining as its Portman-led second half, Celeste’s childhood reveals a really impactful and vital message about the good and bad of our exposure of victims of tragedy, how giving them a voice can can have the best intentions but often the toughest of outcomes.

Fast forward a teen pregnancy and years of personal and professionals ups-and-down and we arrive at Portman’s version of Celeste, which is a polar opposite from the sweet girl we saw earlier in the film. Portman plays Celeste like a Real Housewife given a record deal, spewing off insults, wild accusations, and self-obsessed apathy in an inscrutable East Coast accent. She struggles to connect with her more sensitive daughter (also Cassidy, an ingenious bit of double casting), seeing her more as an object to vent to and play buddies with her than her own child. Portman fully commits herself to the role, disappearing into as if possessed. It’s a brilliant heel turn from Corbet, who instantly shatters your expectations of who Celeste will become with a role that speaks more to his critiques of pop culture than his praises. If the first half of the film is a reserved, complicated acknowledgement of the pros and cons of cultural fantasy, the second half is an outright scathing takedown. But it’s important to note that Corbet doesn’t see Celeste or her music as the villain, but rather the fact that everyone deems it appropriate to use her as a societal punching bag. Portman’s portion also opens with an act of violence, a terrorist attack perpetrated by a group wearing masks from one of Celeste’s music videos. Everyone rushes to seek Celeste out as an expert on the issue, despite the fact they’ve been less interested in her trauma over her childhood survival and more in her tabloid grabbing antics. In a joke that shoots the ridiculousness of such headline-hungry analysis, a reporter asks Celeste if she believes the attack and her music are linked. Incredulous, she quips, “Who cares?”, and her angry sentiments don’t feel misplaced. As Portman slowly breaks down Celeste over the film’s final hour before reviving her in a climatic musical performance, it feels like we’re seeing the well depths of the skeletons in our American closet coming out to play, showing how we can so quickly forget the pain of those affected by public tragedy when the reality is that those affected can never forget.

Vox Lux is ultimately the most fascinating exploration of pop culture in some time, a dark horse A Star Is Born that holds no punches in its quest to examine the two-way mirror of American escapism. It has a tendency to overreach, and its wild mixture of violence, dark comedy, and melodrama will probably confound many viewers, but it’s impossible to ignore the effectiveness of its grand aspirations. No film in recent memory has a better awareness of the wildly complex machinations of what makes American grief tick. It knows underneath that like the purposely fortified foundation of the Freedom Tower, there’s ugliness buried under the shine of our cultural coping mechanisms.