– Brandon Ledet & Mark “Boomer” Redmond
– Brandon Ledet & Mark “Boomer” Redmond
The riskiest gamble of Vox Lux: “A 21st Century Portrait” is that it looks and sounds like a mainstream movie with wide appeal when it is, in reality, a purposefully divisive work meant to enrage & alienate. Featuring an Oscar reel-worthy performance from Natalie Portman (in full Black Swan mode) and arriving just in time to make that PR push happen, the film masquerades as a must-see Important Drama friendly to mainstream discussion in wide release. It’s the most flagrantly misrepresented film in that vein I’ve seen since mother!, however, and it’s sure too piss off just as many onlookers unprepared for the cold, mean, absurdist melodrama that awaits them. The funniest thing about that gamble is that this is a film about marketing and public perception. It’s about a pop culture artist who has a hostile relationship with the public, so it’s already sneering in the general direction of its inevitable detractors. It’s brutal and coldly funny like a Yorgos Lanthimos film, yet it’s absurdly earnest like a Mommie Dearest melodrama. It’s a distanced philosophical statement on the current shape of Western culture, but also a gleefully perverse, intimate portrait of a woman behaving monstrously. There’s no way to properly market a work that tonally volatile to a mass audience, so the film is going to be paraded around like an Oscar Season drama when it’s actually something much weirder and more deeply sinister. It’s a Trojan horse, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a concealed weapon; it’s a film I admired on its own merits, but also look forward to seeing it being met with hostile negativity.
Vox Lux’s cheeky air of self-importance extends beyond its festival circuit & Oscar Season release strategy. Its self-appointed intent to function as a “21st Century Portrait” is not only a reference to its depiction of a pop star’s rise from teenage darling to thirty-something monster, but also its cold, detached commentary on the modern world at large. A bitterly sarcastic antidote to the earnest, vulnerable pontification of 20th Century Women, the film is relayed through the dry, humorously overwritten narration of Willem Dafoe, who acts as our godlike tour guide of the last 20 years of terrorist violence & pop culture rot (and finding those two forces grotesquely symbiotic). Portman’s central character, Celeste, is a kind of cipher for this cultural commentary. A permanently scarred victim of domestic terrorism as a teenager, Celeste turns a personal tragedy into a hit song to achieve instantaneous fame, so that the film can comment directly on how horrific violence is marketed for easy profit. The pop music machinery of this divide is anchored by an original soundtrack of Sia compositions, performed by “Celeste.” The menacing violence of the world it exploits & mismarkets is represented in contrast by a horrifyingly minimalist score from Scott Walker, approximating his best 21st Century mutation of John Carpenter. That internal musical conflict matches the other binary confrontations represented throughout: pop vs. metal, terrorism vs. Public Relations, “real art” vs. “having an angle.” By the time the film reaches its climatic Celeste concert and all that’s left is the conflict between Sia’s songs & Dafoe’s narration, the clearest binary at play is Good Vs. Evil. Like mother!, Vox Lux is a divisive, gleefully unsubtle work that gets outright Biblical in its internal, philosophical conflicts. It dares you to hate it, then asks for forgiveness. It spits in your face, then blows you a kiss.
All that thematic discussion is just me intellectualizing the real reason I enjoyed this film: it’s fun to watch women misbehave, unconcerned with whether or not you like them. Celeste starts the film as a relatively normal teenager (played by Raffey Cassidy), but the circumstances of her rise to fame and 24/7 pampering transform her into a monstrous, irredeemable brat. Portman has way too much fun going over-the-top as a power-hungry villain in the role, chewing scenery with an exaggerated Staten Island accent and an addict’s insatiable desire for more, more, more. She admits her latest album cycle’s “sci-fi anthems” are creatively bankrupt in one breath, then claims she is a literal god in the next. She pretends to be a thick-skinned badass in a leather jacket, but crumbles at any mention of her glaring, public faults – a vulnerability visually represented by the decorative neck guards he uses to conceal the wounds from her teen-years tragedy. A lesser film would portray Celeste as a victim of her circumstances, a product of an abusive, exploitative culture and frustrated expression of mass violence. Vox Lux refuses to let her off the hook so easily, instead allowing her the space to alienate & enrage with a comically escalating set of temper tantrums and demands for attentive admiration. Even her one saving grace as an artist, the frequent defense that “at least she writes her own lyrics,” is demonstrated to be a vicious lie, as she constantly takes credit for loved ones’ work and then bullies them into silence. The concluding minutes of concert footage that gloss over all that backstage misery with a pure-fantasy pop star sheen only make her monstrous behavior more horrific in contrast: yet another internal conflict meant to sit queasily on the viewer’s stomach.
I don’t expect universal backup for my love of Vox Lux, nor do I really want it. Just like how the movie is perversely fun in its uncompromising depictions of a woman’s monstrous behavior, I suspect some of my enjoyment of it as a final product is its built-in divisiveness. There were several walkouts at our New Orleans Film Festival screening of the picture, and even the audience who remained to squirm in their seats weren’t sure what to do with the film’s cold brutality & absurd melodrama humor. You either revel in that discomfort or you dismiss the film as a failure, and I very much look forward to seeing the most polarized reactions in that binary divide. My favorite kinds of movies are the ones where I look forward to reading their most fiercely negative reviews; that’s not something I’m used to getting out of an Oscar Season prestige release, so I find this instance especially exciting.
Does a bad ending, or even merely an unsatisfying conclusion, ruin a movie? I go back and forth on this a lot, sometimes within works with the same creators and producers. I considered last year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane to be one of the best movies of the year, and I really love 98% of Super 8, both of which suffer the same issue of a tonally inappropriate ending for a movie that was thematically about something other than, you know, stupid Cloverfield monsters (in the case of the former, at least it was justified by the retitle). Both of them are movies that I recommend to others with the caveats that they are nearly perfect but fail in a major way that, depending upon your consideration of the subject, may ruin your overall filmic experience.
The Killing of a Sacred Deer is one of these contentious films. I sat in the theater in a completely enraptured state watching the film’s first two hours, but in the film’s final moments, those joyous feelings turned to ashes in my mouth. My roommate walked out of the theater exultant, but I was underwhelmed. But before we get there, a quick synopsis.
Surgeon Stephen Murphy (Colin Farrell) has a well-ordered and successful life, as demonstrated by the sumptuous home he shares with his loving wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) and their two children, fifteen-year-old Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and elementary-aged Bob (Sunny Suljic). He also has a secret and unusual relationship with teenaged Martin (Barry Keoghan), which he keeps from his family and lies about to his anesthesiologist partner Matthew (Bill Camp). He meets with the boy clandestinely at a diner and buys him gifts, ranging from simple ice cream cones to expensive watches. Stephen eventually reveals this relationship to his family, although he lies that he met Martin when the boy’s father died suddenly; in fact, Martin’s father was a longtime patient of Stephen’s, who died under mysterious circumstances. Stephen’s family falls under the influence of Martin’s charms, especially Kim, but each member of the family begins to fall victim of an inexplicable paralysis that seems to be of Martin’s devising.
There’s a lot going on in this film, and there’s so, so much to love, especially in its small moments of subtlety and intricacy. When I told him that I had seen it, Brandon asked if the film was as Kubrickian and giallo-inspired as he had heard; although the fingerprints that underline Kubrick’s influence are all over the film, there’s no real giallo influence that I can discern. I didn’t happen to catch The Lobster, but I am told that the emotional distance evident in dialogue and the lack of inflection that the actors use in Killing is a commonality with director Yorgos Lanthimos’s previous work. I’m not sure how that stylistic choice fit with his earlier film, but it’s a resounding success here, as the cold world of surgeons and diagnoses, children getting slapped (and worse), long walks with ice cream, and even awkward sexual advances are all treated with the same clinical dispassion, instilling the film with a feeling of extreme detachment that resonates in every scene. This only increases the mood of growing tension that is intentionally invoked, as the audience feels their anxiety rising like a tide while the characters observe the changes in their world and worldview with infuriatingly cold tempers.
Beyond the overt characterizations, there’s a lot of subtlety that will no doubt provoke discussion and inspection. Kim’s recent first menstruation is mentioned on two separate occasions, including once as a point of pride for Stephen when talking to his work colleagues following a formal speech; what’s to be made of that? Early in the film, Stephen and Anna engage in some slightly kinky hanky-panky (all edited and filmed with the same dispassionate camera work as every scene) in which Anna lies down inverted on the bed (with her head at the foot of the bed and vice versa) and pretends to be a patient under anesthesia; when Kim later attempts to seduce Martin, she assumes this same position, implying that she possesses a knowledge of her parents’ sex lives that is both incomplete and inappropriate. Every relationship possesses an animalistic charge but lacks intimacy, except for Stephen’s mentorship (for lack of a better word) of Martin, which is initially framed as potentially sexual and abusive but ultimately proves to be something equally primal but much, much worse. It’s not absent from the film, however: after foiling an unsuccessful seduction attempt on the part of Martin’s mother (one scene wonder Alicia Silverstone), Stephen later returns to their home in a rage when Martin’s true intentions are revealed, and he threatens/promises to “fuck [Martin] and [his] mother, like [Martin] want[s],” so he is at the very least aware of this tension and how it could appear, but his understanding of the motives are all wrong.
It’s the small moments in which this film proves its great worth, but paradoxically that same sparsity and minimalism in its ending left me unsatisfied as the credits started to roll. Even if you don’t make the immediate connection to the myth of Iphigenia, which is mentioned overtly in a scene wherein Stephen meets his children’s principal to investigate possible causes of their bizarre malady, the phrase “sacred deer” is bound to ping some mental connections for anyone with a familiarity to Greek mythology. Even with that knowledge, there is still an expectation for some kind of explanation for Martin’s apparently supernatural abilities, which never comes. This absence is less disappointing than one would expect, but the film still feels somehow incomplete in its final moments. Perhaps that was intentional; perhaps the evocation of feelings of incompleteness (not necessarily dissatisfaction) was the point of the film as a whole. I’d have to give it another viewing before I could say for sure, but for now, I’m left as cold as the icy blues of the film’s color aesthetic and Kidman’s eyes, although the buoyancy of the film’s choices before its final frames lifts my overall estimation.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond