Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Vox Lux Hits Equally Ambitious High And Sour Notes

Vox Lux makes it clear early on that it's aiming to get people chattering like teeth in the Arctic wintertime. Making one of the opening scenes of your movie an on-screen depiction of a school shooting is the kind of thing that'll certainly generate conversation but is there more going on with Vox Lux than just surface-level references to hot-button political issues and intentionally discomforting imagery? There actually is but it's buried underneath some weirdly executed narration and lackluster directing. The ambition clearly present even in these flawed oddball traits is admirable but said traits also have a tendency to be a distraction rather than an enhancement to highest notes Vox Lux manages to nail.

The opening school shooting scene of Vox Lux (which, given that it takes place in 1999, is clearly meant to be a stand-in for the Columbine Massacre) sets into motion the rest of the plot as Cassidy (portrayed as a teenager by Raffey Cassidy), is one of the survivors of that school shooting. After that traumatic event, she begins to pen songs detailing her experiences during and after the shooting that see her becoming a music superstar. Midway through the film, the story cuts to the present where we see an adult Cassidy (now played by Natalie Portman) as a pop star sensation whose private life is wrecked by controversy, strained relationships with her loved ones and all sorts of turmoil.

This story is frequently interrupted by voice-over work from a narrator played by Willem Dafoe that manages to prove something I once thought impossible: there can be such a thing as too much Willem Dafoe narration! Though Dafoe's vocals are as pleasing to the ears as ever, Brady Corbet's screenplay leans far too heavily on this narration to provide explanations for crucial character motivations and other critical plot details, it's a classic case of telling but not showing. We cannot just watch Cassidy and her sister, Ellie, experience personal emotional turmoil, the script must have this happen on the sidelines while Dafoe's narrator informs the audience that "The sister's relationship was strained on that day...just like the country after 9/11".

Apparently, this narration is supposed to be comedic and given that comedy is, after all, subjective, perhaps it'll work for other viewers, but for me, the narration just didn't work even as a comedic device, it simply came off as indistinguishable from genuine generic overly portentous narration in execution. Corbet also struggles with his directing as well, conversations rely too heavily on the derivative medium-shot/reverse-medium-shot visual format of capturing dialogue exchanges and the lackluster direction renders a climactic concert that Cassidy performs in a reminder of the low-budget nature of the proceedings rather than as a commentary on the characters or the weighty themes the story is keen to explore.

Vox Lux does tend to stumble in key ways but it does manage to excel in a number of other respects, namely in Natalie Portman's gusto performance. Continuing her delightful career path of choosing challenging & fascinating roles, Portman recognizes just how wildly over-the-top real-world pop stars can be and uses that as an excuse to throw herself headfirst into the role of a foul-mouthed superstar who's flung caution to the wind and it's a dazzling sight to behold. I could watch just the scene where Portman delivers ribald retorts to a pushy diner employee all day long while Portman does a magnificent job of depicting Cassidy's gradually mounting frustration at an interviewer who's asking one too many questions about her personal life.

While Corbet's script overdoes it on the narration and needed to spend more time on just letting characters be characters, it does work in giving Portman's whirlwind performance a solid foundation to be built upon, namely in that all of Cassidy's behavior stems from her singular experiences in surviving that horrific tragedy from 1999. That one event has had a ripple effect on Cassidy's entire life and both the screenplay and Portman do an excellent job of capturing how the long-term effects of trauma can impact a person and the people around them. Vox Lux may be an inconsistent and flawed production but its shortcomings still demonstrate a boldness that, when paired with its more thoughtful qualities and an outstanding lead performance from Portman, ensure it got stuck in my brain like a catchy pop song.

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