I’ve always liked Brady Corbet as an actor. He’s popped up in a lot of independent films that I like – Martha Marcy May Marlene, Simon Killer, Clouds of Sils Maria – always having this strange mixture of damaged innocence and boiling danger to him that gripped me. I might like him even more as a director. Two films in as a director, he’s established himself as an uncompromising auteur with a lot of promise for the future. With Vox Lux, he’s an unexpectedly assured voice with confidence you don’t normally expect from a young director on their second film. I would probably hate Vox Lux if it wasn’t so damn well made considering its lack of subtlety towards its subject matter, but Corbet has delivered one of the highlights of 2018.
Vox Lux starts at the turn of the century where young teenager Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) survives a school shooting and writes and performs a song with her sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) in memoriam for those that died that catapults her to fame as she becomes a successful popstar. Later in life in current day, adult Celeste (Natalie Portman) grapples with her fractured relationship with those around her as another violent shooting thrusts her back into the spotlight as she begins a comeback tour.
Natalie Portman is a force of nature here, Celeste may be her finest performance to date. She’s just giving 110% in every scene. You can accuse her of overacting here as there is plenty of opportunity for her to do so with her pill-addled popstar with a hard and theatrical Staten Island accent to top it off. But I’ll always rather have a performer doing too much instead of not enough. I could have watched another whole hour of her as Celeste, like Celeste’s fans I just couldn’t get enough.
Jude Law always plays straight and proper gentlemen, and it’s just a shame – he’s such a great sleazebag. I don’t mean to misinform that his character of Celeste’s manager is some inherent manifestation of evil or anything – he actually feels more honest of a portrayal of his industry than most – but I always like Law on the more scummy side than the honorable one. Raffey Cassidy is quickly becoming an actress to watch. She was a part of last year’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer, calmly holding her own against industry veterans like Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman. She continues to hold her own against the likes of Portman and Law while playing two roles – Celeste as a teenager and Celeste’s daughter later in life – personifying the two acts of the film: genesis and re-genesis. Buy stock in Raffey Cassidy. Stacy Martin and Jennifer Ehle contribute solid turns to round out the ensemble. Christopher Abbott – an actor I always like watching – makes a welcome appearance, and there’s a nice surprise as to who does the narration.
Scott Walker reteams with Corbet again to deliver another haunting score, a work of strings that borders on horror with how tense it becomes. Sia writes the pop songs for the film, and they are quite excellent. The track “Wrapped Up” that sends Celeste to stardom is a legitimately great song. These tunes are both genuinely catching and affecting songs while also biting and self-aware digs at the modern pop landscape.
Corbet’s 2015 debut The Childhood of a Leader was a beguiling film. You understood quickly that Corbet was sure of himself as a filmmaker, the shots and scenes were too planned out and well executed for him to just be fucking around aimlessly like most are prone to on their first go behind the camera. I remember thinking we might have a genuinely good filmmaker in Corbet after watching it. Vox Lux confirms we might have if not a great one, then at least a fascinating one – which might be better. This film fucking goes for it. Corbet is daringly unafraid and unashamed to tackle heavy issues like gun violence and celebrity in the digital age as the new religion. It might be misguided, sure, but never boring – could we really expect anything else? I mean would you really want a film about school shootings and the 21st century celebrity to feel safe? It’s one of the most daring endings this year, and I’ve seen First Reformed and The Favourite. Corbet equates celebrity with satan in its final moments, making the final images all the more striking and haunting. Similar to the ending of The Childhood of a Leader, I am completely unsure of what I witnessed and what its meaning is supposed to be – but I am also awestruck and okay with the fact I don’t have all the answers. It’s often a better film that way. I anxiously await Corbet to give me this feeling again soon.