There is something very fascinating about a movie that doesn’t try to appease its audience. It could go awry (like whatever is going on in “Vice”), or it could be writer-director Brady Corbet’s “Vox Lux” — a pretty, messy, unapologetic indictment on pop culture that is too on-the-nose to be taken seriously, but still manages to make some actually solid points about the commercialization of the tragic celebrity.
Still, it comes off as a very expensive, mildly interesting melodrama that doesn’t have nearly the impact it probably thinks it does.
The action, such as it is, kicks off in the year 1999, when 13-year-old Celeste (Raffey Cassidy, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”), a budding performer, sustains a life-threatening spinal injury in a school shooting. She’s left understandably traumatized by the event and has to undergo a substantial amount of physical therapy. Things turn around for Celeste when she stands up in front of her Staten Island church filled with family members of the deceased shooting victims, steadies herself with a walker while wearing a neck brace, and belts out the sorrowful yet sweet lyrics to an original tune that “would become an anthem for the nation,” as the narrator (Willem Dafoe) states.
The optics alone, that of a weakened young girl with an angelic voice, are what ultimately seduces the mourning crowd to the point where — wait for it — “the entire country fell in step with her sentiment. It was not her grief; it was theirs. No longer her experience, they reclaimed it as their own.”
It’s the contrivance of a star being born in this precise moment (propelled by an even more forced narration) that sets the tone for the whole movie and makes its most potent, albeit well-known, statement that tragedy in superstardom sells. It’s the very platform on which Celeste’s star idolatry will rely, catapulting her to become one of the most adored singers in the world.
But even more uncomfortable to reckon with is how self-aware and intentional she is about this. Throughout her life (the film follows her to age 31 when she’s played by Natalie Portman), Celeste never even removes her neck brace. Instead, she turns it into a bedazzled accessory she wears to remind audiences of who she is: the teenage shooting victim. She’s making sure money stays in the bank.
Highlighting the perversity of monetizing tragedy, and celebrities’ calculated participation in this ritual for their own gain, is something “Vox Lux” does well. It’s uncomfortable to even consider that one of your favorite pop stars has been doing the same act, and how you might have been enabling them to do so. But the movie confronts the very idea of why something like the “sob stories” segment on reality competition shows like “American Idol” have always clenched audiences: Because they build a fanbase that might not have ever happened otherwise in today’s oversaturated, dark climate in which everyone is looking for even a sliver of hope and humanity, even if it’s fake.
If this sounds cynical, that’s because it’s supposed to be. The movie isn’t trying to make you feel good or even to like Celeste. In fact, when it resets midway through with its tragic heroine as an adult, it turns into a full-blown (and unnecessary) melodrama, by which point she’s been ravaged by drugs, unchecked rage, and the pressure to constantly have to live her life within the parameters of her trauma.
But because there isn’t a gradual evolution of her character (more like a sharp jolt, when a leather-clad Portman shows up led only by yet another explanatory narration), it feels garish and unsupported. Then again, maybe that’s the point — a brash awakening to show her audience what a mess they made by their need to see her for what she represents rather than who she is.
It’s all so clichéd, though. That’s where “Vox Lux” stumbles, even when it really is trying to tell us something we may need to hear through the gaze of an impenitent protagonist. It ultimately comes back to something we’ve seen before: a wilted pop star on the edge.
This more ostentatious second half of the film vacillates between Celeste’s outbursts and meltdowns as she attempts to bond with her estranged teenage daughter (also played by Cassidy) and to prepare for a concert, which conveniently occurs on the same day as another mass shooting. It’s a perverse one-day snapshot leading up to an extravagant performance in front of yet another anxious crowd eager to be allayed by the easy pop melodies of their all-American idol.
Though it relies far too heavily on the use of narration to advance holes in the dialogue, and at times treads too deeply into tired territory, “Vox Lux” does at least try to confront an undiscussed truth about today’s pop culture within a sociopolitical context. Plus, Portman and Raffidy (as well as Stacy Martin, who plays Portman’s unappreciated sister Eleanor) deliver solid performances in this relentlessly, effectively miserable narrative.