Make no mistake, The Goldfinch is a mess. It’s an episodic, disjointed bag of wannabe tearjerker moments and wayward editing, but it’s not without some merit. With an impressive cast and one of the greatest cinematographers of all time in Roger Deakins at their disposal, director John Crowley (Brooklyn) and screenwriter Peter Straughan (The Snowman) were already working from a somewhat advantageous position.
What doesn’t work about Crowley’s film is quite simple: a haphazard structure and a prosaic score, both incredibly important when crafting a picture spanning more than a decade and following a character who loses multiple people close to him. I very recently lost my own mother, so one would assume I could relate to young Theo Decker when his mother is killed and he spends a good chunk of the film mourning her loss. The film’s biggest failing is an inability to make her death feel like anything more than an inciting incident. Her character is essentially non-existent and the bombing that kills her, as well as the aftermath, have been chopped up and spread across two and a half hours to preserve some sense of mystery that never actually materializes. You learn more about Theo’s surrogate mother Mrs. Barbour, played with steely reserve by Nicole Kidman, than you do the single most important character in the entire film. Everything about The Goldfinch hinges on his mother’s death, and yet we never get to know her or know much about her relationship with Theo beyond simple anecdotes.
What works about the film is also quite simple: Oakes Fegley is so good he single-handedly elevates half of the movie, specifically a scene where he and new friend Boris (Finn Wolfhard) share secrets by the pool at his father’s home in Vegas. For a brief moment we feel his loss because Fegley’s pained expression in the dead of night makes us believe. He gives one of the better child performances in recent memory and Wolfhard continues an impressive streak of enlivening otherwise dull movies, bad Russian accent be damned. The both of them are a delight as two lost souls looking for friendship in the desert, on the outskirts of Sin City after Theo’s deadbeat dad (a surly Luke Wilson) has whisked him cross-country to live with him and his hooker girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson). For their part, Wilson and Paulson ooze bourbon breath and the latter makes it look oddly attractive. She’s never been hotter or better as a very human villain who wants nothing to do with Theo or his far-away problems.
The Goldfinch peaks in Vegas, where for a time the film pivots from tragedy to coming-of-age comedy. The bulk of the film is set among the brownstones and antique stores of Upper East Side Manhattan. From the bombing itself, which occurs in the middle of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to the wealthy enclave he’s taken to after his mother’s passing, when he’s temporarily adopted by Kidman’s Barbara and her uppity husband, Theo lives in a world of art, classical music, and tight-knit sweaters, if not family. At Hobert & Blackwell, the antique store he works for as teenager then twenty-something, he presumably finds purpose, not to mention a real father figure in Hobert, played with pointed gravitas by the reliable Jeffrey Wright. But no matter where Theo goes or what he does, tragedy isn’t far behind. He’s been dealt a hand of death, abandonment, and betrayal, and a film that is constantly switching genres. There’s even a crime epic buried in there somewhere. He’s unlucky in crime and unlucky in love, and it’s up to him to find a silver lining amid the chaos of this life, lest he succumb to a depressive state of opioid abuse and impending suicide.
Ansel Elgort may not be the most charismatic of actors, but he can cry his ass off, and that counts for something in a weepy drama with heavy lifting. Still, his Theo is undone by a script that gives little context to his end of the road, his part of the character arc. We don’t know why he falls for the wrong woman later in life, or what exactly he loves about antiques, and therefore it’s difficult to get behind him as a protagonist once he grows all tall and pretty. We don’t know him anymore at that point. Emotional distance is a problem throughout. There’s a vignette of young Theo escaping Vegas with a little Shih Tzu dog and returning to Hobert’s store, he and dog both sopping wet in the rain as Wright opens his home to the boy once more. It’s the closest The Goldfinch comes to real pathos, watching this poor kid trying his damnedest to turn his fate and the fate of this puppy for the better. For the most part though, the film runs cold. A score by Trevor Gureckis seemingly goes out of its way to maintain that distance, utilizing basic piano keys and violin strings, both of which stopped sounding like much of anything thirty years ago. They’re prestige trappings, the old definition of Oscar bait long ago made irrelevant by the rise of indie labels with far riskier goals in mind.
The Goldfinch feels like a relic of a different era, when Hollywood churned out middlebrow art at the feet of Oscar. Crowley and Straughan have strung together a film that jumps backwards and forwards in time without reason or cohesion, and their attempt at wringing a lesson out of Theo’s misery is laudable if misguided. With little emotional investment to hang our hat on, such lessons are unearned.