The Goldfinch | John Crowley | September 13th, 2019
To start this review, I will admit that I’ve never read the 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by Donna Tartt. I’ve heard both good and bad reviews and opinions on the story and the overall length of the novel. So when going into the film version of this story, I was mostly blind as to what the story was about. After seeing the film, I discussed the novel with some friends. After describing the film to them, they more or less confirmed that it sounded like a faithful adaptation by Brooklyn director John Crowley and The Snowman writer Peter Straughtan. Having said that, we also collectively described similar issues we had with the book, as well as the film’s story. I’m sure certain character traits and overall story beats were shifted or altered, but the core of the story sounds well intact here.
The Goldfinch refers to the real 1654 painting, which becomes the obsession of a fictional 13-year-old Theo Decker (Oakes Fegley, Pete’s Dragon). While visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mother, a terrorist bombing occurs. Theo’s mother is tragically killed in the bombing, and in the aftermath, he decides to take the magically untouched Goldfinch painting from the now-destroyed museum. Theo decides to keep the artwork to himself, and he finds himself placed in the care of a fellow classmate’s family. Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman), the matriarch of the family, brings Theo into her home, and her son Andy soon becomes good friends with Theo.
While dealing with the trauma of losing his mother, Theo tracks down a relative of another person who was killed in the bombing. This leads him to Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), an antique dealer living in the city. Each adult character that Theo meets, begins to shape who he eventually becomes. The film goes back and forth between younger Theo and adult Theo, played by Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver). A majority of The Goldfinch places us alongside the younger, 13-year-old Theo. This is honestly where the movie shines the most. Theo as an adult is a cold, closed-off drug addict who is obsessed with holding onto the memory of his mother, and the tragedy that befell her.
Oakes Fegley, meanwhile, shines as the younger version of Theo. He portrays Theo’s sorrow and loneliness with a serious depth that is quite impressive. Once Theo’s deadbeat father (Luke Wilson) and girlfriend (Sarah Paulson) show up to bring Theo to Las Vegas, the film really gets going. After talking with some fans of the novel, some of them expressed their dislike for the Las Vegas section of the book. Granted, this is where a large majority of the film takes place. We see the culmination of Theo’s dire situation – living with a father who abuses him and only wants to use him to get out of gambling debt.
Theo’s single solace living in the desert is school classmate Boris (Stranger Things & It‘s Finn Wolfhard), who’s living in Las Vegas with his similarly abusive father. The two of them bond over their circumstances while also experimenting with drugs, shoplifting, and alcohol. After another tragedy, Theo is forced to return to New York, where he eventually lives with Hobie. A decade later, Theo has helped transform Hobie’s antique shop into a very profitable and reputable business. Throughout his struggles and triumphs, Theo constantly returns to the painting that he took. It is a reminder of where his journey began, and also the only remnant of his mother that he feels connected to.
Throughout The Goldfinch, Theo is constantly trying to find his place in whatever new circumstance he finds himself in. This seems to be the theme here. Theo is constantly disappointed in the course his life has taken and, in the beginning of the film, we see him contemplating suicide. Over the decade, he has become a still grief-stricken drug addict and is only unable to express his true feelings to friends and family when it’s too late.
The Goldfinch is a hard story to describe. It’s ultimately a reflection on grief and how it can shape our lives, but the film doesn’t have too much to actually say about grief. Almost everything that happens to Theo is sad or depressing, but the film itself only goes skin deep with trying to showcase Theo’s choices through that lens. The Goldfinch also seems to be about the immortality of art vs the inevitable collapse of our own lives. However, the two themes have a hard time connecting to the actual plot and events that unfold. If the film is truly about protecting art so that it lives beyond us, there are too many dramatic and unnecessary plot-lines to get to that conclusion.
Everything is beautifully shot by the now Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins (for Blade Runner 2049), and the dialogue is mostly solid, with strong performances. If anything, it feels like certain segments of Theo’s life are given much more screen time than necessary. Certain life milestones either go by in two quick scenes or stretch on for 30 minutes. There isn’t much balance with the pace of the story, which is a complaint I’ve also heard from readers of the novel. If time jumps were jarring in the book, they are much more so on the screen here. That being said, I did enjoy the overall story, and it kept me guessing where it was going to leave Theo and the rest of the characters.
Nicole Kidman does a great job here as the matriarch of the Barbour family. She re-enters Theo’s life later on and becomes an integral part of his inner circle. Jeffrey Wright comes and goes as Theo’s mentor Hobie, but does a fine job with his limited screen time. Overall, the one performance that felt lacking was actually Ansel Elgort. His adult Theo just doesn’t deliver the same emotional weight with his performance. It’s harder to feel bad for him when he’s seemingly made quite a comfortable life for himself, despite the odds. His constant drug use and slip-ups are somewhat understandable, but it requires the viewer to try and connect his younger and older self here. Unfortunately, they feel like two different characters.
The Goldfinch ends quickly with only a portion of the plot threads really resolved, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it certainly felt abrupt. Whatever the shortcomings in the story (which may come from the novel itself), The Goldfinch is certainly memorable for its early performances and overall moodiness. It’s not necessarily a must-see for the theater experience, but it may find some love from the fans of the original novel.