When my friend invited me to see Natalie Portman‘s newest film, Vox Lux, I obviously said yes. Natalie Portman playing a pop star past her prime? In which she gives “a riveting performance of fiercely mannered bravado?”
All that plus Jude Law? Yes, please!
I barely Googled anything about it; I don’t like reading film reviews before seeing the movie myself. But I did watch the trailer. It seemed like a really interesting portrait of a pop star who had been affected by tragedy. Mostly, what I knew about Vox Lux was that it starred Portman — and that was enough for me.
So you can understand my shock and horror when the film began with the most gruesome scene I’ve ever seen on the big screen. (Before you @ me: Yes, you could probably find some gorier examples out there. But violent, scary movies are things I avoid.)
Vox Lux begins in a small town in America with seemingly disparate scenes. It’s 1999, and narrator Willem Dafoe tells of us a young girl named Celeste (Portman, though when she’s a teen she’s played by Raffey Cassidy) who “was kind and full of grace.”
We don’t quite know what to expect. The scene changes to classroom, with a tight focus on the teacher (Maria Dizzia), welcoming her students back from winter break. There’s chatter, and the viewer is put at ease. She says she has an announcement, but wants to wait until everyone arrives. Then, a student arrives in the doorway, and Dizzia greets him. Her tone changes. And she gets shot. The classroom panics. The camera then moves to the shooter, and it only gets more violent from there.
My heart is pounding just thinking about it, to be honest.
The scene is meant to echo the Columbine High School massacre — the director, Brady Corbert, is from Colorado and was only 10 when the school shooting occurred. Most reviews of the film do mention how it begins with a school shooting, or some just say “violent tragedy.” Variety describes it as ” a rightly jarring prologue — or prelude, to follow the wording of the film’s austere intertitles — presents a 1999 school massacre in clean, cruel strokes. A kindly homeroom teacher…and a classroom full of vacation-fresh students are laid horrifically to waste by a single young shooter.”
The New Yorker, however, tells its readers, “The less you know of it in advance the better.”
But I respectfully disagree. I’m here to warn you, and to tell that the violent images will stick in your mind for a long time after the credits roll.
If you watch the trailer, Vox Lux seems to be a film about Portman playing an over-the-top, provocative pop star who rose to fame when she was maybe too young, and who now does a lot of drugs and has a daughter who worries about her. The preview ever-so-briefly alludes to a violent event (there’s brief images of cops, people crying with candles, a car on fire, and a boy with a gun, but only if you’re looking for them), but in no way does it indicate how a school shooting forms the emotional core of the movie.
Because here’s the thing: I would never seek out a reenactment of a school shooting as entertainment. And this isn’t because I don’t care deeply about this tragic, ongoing issue — it’s precisely the opposite, in fact: I recognize that mass shootings already form an emotional core of our society. In 2018 alone, 13,419 people have died from gun violence in the United States. There have been 325 mass shootings, 65 of which have occurred on school campuses.
Of course, Corbert, the director — himself a dad of a 5-year-old — didn’t just view this as a Hollywood trope, either. The amount of deaths and mass shootings are why Corbert chose to include this violent opening in Vox Lux. “I think people are ready to think about this and talk about this more than ever — especially this year,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s something that we should be dealing with head-on.”
And for him, that means putting the viewer in the classroom during unfathomable violence. “I think any time you’re portraying acts of violence on-screen, it can be argued that they immediately become iconic. I was mostly focused on doing something that was quite banal,” Corbert told Vanity Fair.
But are school shootings so banal now that we can include them in films without flinching? Maybe I’m an emotional person (I cried watching Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again on opening night), and maybe I get nightmares too easily, but the opening scene shocked me to my core. And maybe that was the point, maybe we really had to understand the origins of future superstar Celeste we had to see her survive this horrific tragedy. But did we really need to see it all?
Corbet, for one, thinks so. He explained to Screen Daily, “I considered starting the film with the ambulances after the shooting, but it was too evasive. You need to understand where this character comes from, what makes her who she is. I tried to deal with the shooting as quickly and as frankly as I could. It’s not particularly violent, if you break it down. This film’s themes are worn on its sleeve.”
Which, yes, OK. Maybe had I gone in knowing the movie begins with a shooting — had I been prepared for the violence — I would have different feelings. In fact, I probably would have stayed home.