The film begins on a sombre note. An early morning drive through winding streets ends at a high school. Shots ring out. Panicked kids slip and slide on bloody footprints in the hall. One student, 13-year-old Celeste (Raffey Cassidy), tries to reason with the shooter, asking him to pray with her. Her efforts are rewarded with a gunshot to the neck, leaving her with a bullet permanently lodged in her spine. Later, at a memorial for the fallen students, Celeste and sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) perform a self-penned tribute song. A video of the tune goes viral, attracts the attention of a fast-talking manager (Jude Law) and earns Celeste a record deal. A quick tweak to the tune’s lyrics, the manager changes the “my” to “we,” and the song becomes an anthem for the nation, an expression of shared grief. She’s a pop superstar. “I don’t want people to think too hard,” she says. “I just want them to feel good.”
Jump forward 17 years. Celeste is now 31-years-old, still a glitter-covered pop star but now an alcoholic and mother to Albertine (Raffey Cassidy, again). Another shooting rocks her world, this time on a beach in Croatia. Terrorists, wearing masks similar to ones seen in one of the singer’s videos, attack and murder dozens of innocent people. Not responsible but certainly implicated in the violence, Celeste barely responds. She’s more concerned with her homecoming concert in Staten Island and ranting about the minutia of her life. She’s gone from the girl next door who survived tragedy to jaded celebrity teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
“Vox Lux” feels like two movies. The first half is a textured examination of pop music’s place as a chronicle and catalyst of societal mores. Two terrible events, a school shooting and 9/11 frame Celeste’s rise to fame. Director Brady Corbet considers how tragedy has helped shape much of recent pop culture; how stars like Celeste have become symbols of those tragedies and the receptacles of the public’s need for comfort and catharsis. It’s powerful, if a little obtuse, stuff.
Portman anchors the second half in a broad performance. Covered in PVC and glitter she has more hard edges than her younger self. She’s more closed off, more superficial more concerned about how the press are speaking to her on a junket than the shooting on the other side of the world. It’s a detailed portrait of what happens when people breath rarefied air and aren’t the person the public thinks they are, but it isn’t as interesting as the film’s first hour.
A stand-out in both halves is Law as the aggressive manager. Law has morphed very comfortably into character roles and brings just the right mix of obsequiousness and grit to play the kind of guy who can toss off insider showbiz lines like, “She couldn’t sell a life jacket to Natalie Wood.“
Ultimately, while interesting, as a look at celebrity culture the last half of “Vox Lux” is as auto-tuned as the songs the Celeste sings at the end of the film.