BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC Vox Lux opens in 1999 during a Columbine-esque school shooting. A young Celeste Montgomery, played by Raffey Cassidy, is shot in the neck after she offers to pray with the gunman for the release of her classmates. Miraculously she survives and while in the hospital writes a song about her nightmarish experience and what starts as Celeste trying to find a way to heal herself becomes an anthem for a fractured country. In no time, the show biz vampires descend and Celeste is groomed for pop stardom by Jude Law, sporting a Members Only jacket and a gruff New York accent, who serves as manager, enabler and confidant. This dramatic rise to fame is narrated by Willem Dafoe in a role eerily reminiscent of Rod Serling in Phantom of the Paradise.
The film then jumps to 2017 where a 31-year-old Celeste, played by Natalie Portman, is a full-fledged popstar at the tail end of her career — weary, weathered and just a little bit crazy. We spend a day with Celeste as she readies for the launch of a comeback tour in support of her new album, Vox Lux. But even before she can even begin her morning press roundtables, a mass shooting using iconography from one of her videos, rocks the world. This is the tipping point for Celeste, who was hoping this day would be the rebirth of her career. This all plays out in front of her teenage daughter Albertine, who is played by Raffey Cassidy in a strange bit of inspired casting. Shockingly funny and sometimes hard to watch, the film is the darker side of the pop machine, with a glimpse into how its sugary sounds and glamorous idols are manufactured.
Portman turns in a staggering tour de force performance. Her transformation into Celeste feels effortless thanks in no small part to all-in performances by Law and Raffey Cassidy, who does an impressively seamless turn as her younger self. The aging rock star is invariably a male-dominated archetype in cinema (see A Star is Born). But here Portman owns it and manages to out-crazy every rocker in every biopic you’ve probably seen. SIA co-wrote most of the songs and the ethereal quality of SIA’s music lends Portman’s portrayal of Celeste and uncommon authenticity.
The older Portman gets, the more complex the characters she creates, losing herself in role after role. Vox Lux is a film that deals with controversial subject matter in a way that may upset some with its unflinching truths. It’s also a touching story about how something sparked from a very real moment of healing turns its creator into pure artifice. Thankfully the film doesn’t seek salvation for the diva, it simply asks the viewer to see her for who she used to be and what she has become. All that being said, Vox Lux is an exquisite pop-infused masterpiece that solidifies Portman status as one of the most daring actors currently working.