REVIEW: The Goldfinch [2019]

Rating: 6 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 149 minutes
    Release Date: September 13th, 2019 (USA)
    Studio: Warner Bros.
    Director(s): John Crowley
    Writer(s): Peter Straughan / Donna Tartt (novel)

I lost something that should have been immortal.

Theo Decker (Oakes Fegley) lost a lot one fateful day at The Metropolitan Museum of Art when an unexplained terrorist bombing took his mother, home, stability, and, most importantly, his childhood away. One second he’s stealing a glimpse of the young girl (Aimee Laurence‘s Pippa) beside him in front of a famed Carel Fabritius painting while his mom’s hand leaves his shoulder and the next sees him rising from the ashes of the aftermath, dead bodies everywhere. And if dealing with the trauma and survivor’s guilt wasn’t enough, the reason he and his mother were in the gallery that day stemmed from a meeting his principal set at the school nearby to discuss a need for swift punishment. He was the butterfly who flapped his wings.

That’s what Theo wants us to believe at least since it’s what he believes. But it isn’t the whole story. Using self-loathing as a coping mechanism never is. While he was to be reprimanded, it was his mother’s decision to go kill time at the museum first. While he didn’t say anything to the contrary of deserving said reprimand, he was actually taking the fall for something Tom Cable (Nicky Torchia) did. So really Theo was a victim pushed to the wrong place at the wrong time—a prisoner of circumstances and the inability to set the record straight before it would all prove meaningless by comparison. He was the bird on Fabritius’ canvas, chained to its feeder and helpless to escape. He was The Goldfinch.

This being true, however, doesn’t mean the title of Donna Tartt‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is without multiple metaphorical stand-ins spanning youth, place, innocence, and the painting itself. It’s all these things because it’s a symbol that represents this indelible event and ostensibly becomes a tangible object on which he can place the life of his mother after stealing it during the chaos. He wouldn’t have known it then since he went back to his apartment to wait for her, but that’s exactly what happens after learning of her death. Think of it as a souvenir—something imbued with importance regardless of whether he ever looks at it again. The possession itself keeps her memory alive because letting go of it would mean letting go of her.

Director John Crowley and screenwriter Peter Straughan do well to ensure we know this early on by forcing Theo to protect it and keep it close no matter what new bit of turmoil comes his way. First it’s a brief stay at a friend’s (Ryan Foust‘s Andy) house wherein the boy’s mother (Nicole Kidman‘s Mrs. Barbour) treats him like a son. Then it’s a move west with his estranged father (Luke Wilson‘s Larry) and his girlfriend (Sarah Paulson‘s Xandra) before eventually settling with an antique restorer named Hobie (Jeffrey Wright) back in New York City. The canvas remains in his arms through all the moves, disappointment, and fear. It’s his secret beacon of hope shining through the darkness of the unknown—a warm embrace to battle the cold.

The way it serves that purpose during the first two-thirds of the film’s two-and-a-half hour runtime (the book is 784 pages) is effectively drawn thanks to an unorthodox timeline taking us back and forth through Theo’s (Ansel Elgort narrates as his older self) past. We therefore move from an opening prologue of bloody shirt cuffs and a bottle of pills to his childhood struggles and burgeoning feelings for Pippa before fast-forwarding to see how that relationship evolved (Ashleigh Cummings portraying her older self). Then we go back to experience life with dad, friendship with Boris (Finn Wolfhard and Aneurin Barnard as young and old), and a flirtation with drugs. We’re watching as love sparks, fades, reignites, and morphs into something altogether different. Every joy is followed by despair.

And it works because Theo never catches a break. This isn’t some fairy tale of overcoming the odds and erasing the psychological and emotional duress that defined his youth. He makes mistakes, discovers the selfishness of others, and recognizes the pain will always be present. The painting is thus pushed to the background as a security blanket and remembrance of the good times long since gone while his path progresses forward through added drama, unwanted compromises, and a yearning for the stability he might never have again. There’s comfort in the messiness of his life because it shows how nothing lasts forever. Both happiness and sadness are fleeting along an ever-changing trajectory that’s as much about pursuing something as it is running away from something else.

But then comes Lucius Reeve (Denis O’Hare) with a threat that risks everything Theo built. His entrance brings The Goldfinch back into focus and sets the now successful antiques salesman onto a downward spiral of which he cannot dig out. More coincidences (or examples of destiny) arrive to present an escape that increases stress levels beyond control. What was a sweetly funny and intimately devastating portrait shifts towards the dark underworld of crime for overly tense sequences with guns and briefcases providing a message about justifying bad deeds with positive results. I’m not sure how the novel ends, but letting murder tie-up loose ends with a bow as though it’s a necessary evil worthy of relieved smiles has the potential to irrevocably ruin everything that preceded it.

It’s such a crazy left-field turn devoid of the nuance (albeit imperfect) I had come to enjoy. Character is thrown out the window for rushed set pieces lacking the necessary import to accept them as more than plot manipulations. Straughan tries his best to shoehorn in the relevance of the painting’s history, but it too enters the fray as though an afterthought. The idea that The Goldfinch is a representation of his mother and the love that must survive no matter what has happened in the interim becomes visible, but little else as the denouement proves almost flippant about the violence we ultimately endure because it’s attempting to simultaneously be heavy with purpose and absent of stakes or remorse despite the film literally being constructed upon Theo’s PTSD.

I have to imagine Tartt handles it much better with more time and context considering how beloved the book is (the film may have sold me on buying it). I can therefore see why fans would feel betrayed by a cinematic adaptation going through the motions without any of the underlying meaning that defined it. Suddenly all those dynamics that seemed rich with love (Theo and Hobie, Theo and Pippa, Theo and Mrs. Barbour) are revealed to be as hollow, plot-driven, and disposable as the one between Theo and Boris—a union born for a climax that never earns our full investment. Whereas the many loose ends didn’t matter before because Theo purposefully (and justifiably) frayed each one, the conclusion’s faux tidiness renders them incomplete in hindsight.

[1] © 2018 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND AMAZON CONTENT SERVICES LLC Photo Credit: Macall Polay Caption: (L-r) NICOLE KIDMAN as Mrs. Barbour and ANSEL ELGORT as Theo Decker in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Amazon Studios’ drama, THE GOLDFINCH, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
[2] © 2018 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND AMAZON CONTENT SERVICES LLC Photo Credit: Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures Caption: (L-r) OAKES FEGLEY as Young Theo Decker and JEFFREY WRIGHT as Hobie in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Amazon Studios’ drama, THE GOLDFINCH, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
[3] © 2018 WARNER BROS. ENTERTAINMENT INC. AND AMAZON CONTENT SERVICES LLC Photo Credit: Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures Caption: (L-r) FINN WOLFHARD as Young Boris and SARAH PAULSON as Xandra in Warner Bros. Pictures’ and Amazon Studios’ drama, THE GOLDFINCH, a Warner Bros. Pictures release.

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