Film Review – The Goldfinch
Have you ever wanted to watch five different movies in the same sitting? If so, then The Goldfinch (2019) may be for you. Directed by John Crowley and written by Peter Straughan (adapted from Donna Tartt’s novel), the tonal shifts of this story – or stories – varies so wildly that you’ll be watching one type of movie and then ten minutes later will be watching something completely different. At one point you may be in a tale of rebellious youth only to be dropped into an international thriller a few scenes later. Some say that variety is the spice of life, but this is taking it a bit too far.
Let’s break down some of the genres going through this narrative. First is the “Hard-Hitting Melodrama,” in which a young boy named Theo (Oakes Fegley) goes through a traumatic experience when he loses his mother in a terrorist bombing at Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Before he can even process things, Theo gets placed in the care of an upper-class family, with Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman) taking him under her wing.
Now we move on to the “Coming of Age Tale,” where Theo moves in with his lowlife biological father Larry (Luke Wilson) and his girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson). Theo realizes quickly that neither Larry nor Xandra have any real interest in his wellbeing, except for when it comes to some harebrained schemes to make money. Theo strike up a friendship with Boris (Finn Wolfhard) a kid who sports a Russian accent but claims to be from just about every European country in existence. Theo and Boris’ friendship consists of hanging out, watching movies, and drinking alcohol.
Oh but wait, there’s more. Fans of the “Romantic Drama” will get their fair share when a grown Theo (Ansel Elgort) – now working at an antique store – gets involved in a romantic triangle between Mrs. Barbour’s daughter (Willa Fitzgerald) and another woman named Pippa (Ashleigh Cummings) who was also at the museum during the bombing. While Theo’s relationship with Mrs. Barbour’s daughter seems the ideal match, the connection he shares with Pippa is something that only the two of them could understand.
And if that weren’t enough, we also have the “Suspense Thriller” in which the young Theo – maybe not in the right mindset moments after the terrorist attack – unwittingly takes a priceless painting from the museum known as “The Goldfinch.” Keeping it under wraps all the way into adulthood, the adult Theo gets into some deep waters when certain people, who may or may not be part of the criminal underworld, come searching for him and the painting.
I’ve gone to great lengths describing many of the scenarios in The Goldfinch because throughout its monstrous two and half hour running time, we are subjected to each of them in rotating order. But the approach is so lackluster, with such little energy within the scenes, that it was a struggle to keep engaged with what was happening. The pacing and tone have a methodical style, which isn’t a bad thing, but the effect spurred such little interest. As soon as I started to connect with the story, the tone will change or we would move to a different time or place, resetting my emotional investment.
It’s clear that the connective thread is Theo trying to deal with the loss of his mother both as a kid and as an adult. As the man, we see him dressed in fine tailored suits, sporting stylish glasses and perfectly combed hair. Ansel Elgort’s performance is different compared to the young Oakes Felgey. Where Felgey makes Theo a kid who retreats within himself, Elgort puts up an appearance of stability and success. This is meant to hide his inner turmoil, but that idea is never explored to its full potential. Instead, Elgort has to navigate this silly crime-thriller situation involving the painting, the black market, a now adult Boris (Aneurin Barnard) and gangsters. How are we meant to take his character development seriously when part of it has him participating in Ocean’s 11 type hijinks?
The Goldfinch is meant to be a study of grief. We get clues that Theo blames himself for what happened and has never been able to forgive himself. We are reminded of this with constant flashbacks to the museum, each time revealing a little bit more right up to the critical moment. This is more than enough for us to understand where Theo is coming from and where his mindset is at. But the narrative is bogged down with such a meandering plot that it strips away the dramatic impact. The style goes for a “slice of life” look at Theo and his upbringing, but it’s handled with an uneven balance. With so many different things happening with this character, it squanders our fascination with him. By trying to examine everything about Theo, the film ends up not having much to say about him at all.