You can tell that John Crowley’s adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch doesn’t really care about grief or love or anything substantial by the way it handles its inciting event. For this cold, heartless, sterile look at survivor’s guilt in the face of senseless tragedy, you need only observe the relationship between young Theo (Oakes Fegley) and his mother. When you do, you’ll note that there’s nothing there. There’s no nuance, no texture, no specificity; only a giant signpost that says, “My mom was killed by a terrorist, and now I am sad.” From there, Peter Straughan’s script piles on coincidence after coincidence and then hides behind the Hallmark sentiment of “We are all connected and everything happens for a reason.” It takes two-and-a-half-hours to deliver a message that’s worthy of a greeting card. The Goldfinch very much wants to BE ABOUT THINGS THAT MATTER, but it lacks the style or substance to be anything more than a gigantic waste of time.
Theordore Decker (Ansel Elgort) is in a hotel room in Amsterdam about to commit suicide, but before he does, he needs to think about his entire life, or at least his life starting from the point of when he was at the Metropolitan Museum of Art with his mom and then a terrorist blew himself up. From there, young Theodore meets people who are nice to him, like the wealthy Barbour family, and people who are mean to him, like his deadbeat dad (Luke Wilson). These relationships weave a contrived tapestry of broad strokes and shallow connection, and when Theodore grows up, he still can’t get over the guilt of losing his mother (who for plot purposes only exists as Dead Mom). However, Theodore’s salvation may come in the form of a painting called “The Goldfinch”, which I suppose is a better name than “Symbol for Theodore’s Pain and Grief.”
I doubt anything would “save” The Goldfinch, but it certainly suffers from its structure. Rather than cutting between Theo as a child as an adult, the first half is largely Theo as a child and then the second half is Theo as an adult, but because the character is so thinly drawn and defined solely by his grief, the only reason you know that they’re the same character is that they’re sad, well-dressed, and wear glasses. Despite Oakes Fegley being a talented young actor, the Theo we see doesn’t seem like a real person existing in a real world. It’s fine that he cares about adult interests like antiques and classical music, but he doesn’t behave like a child in the slightest. He’s an adult that happens to be in the body of a pre-teen.
The horror Theo experiences is particularly gross because of the way film teases it out. I would understand if the slow reveal was about Theo coming to grips with what happened, but instead it’s played like a titillating mystery. “Don’t you want to see the full terrorist act?” the film asks. “Then stay tuned! But here’s another tease of people being murdered at a museum.” For The Goldfinch, terrorism isn’t a thing that actually happens as much as it’s a starting point for Theo’s journey. Theo goes to live with the kindly Barbours, but at no point does anyone, even the saintly Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman), suggest that a child who saw his mother die in a bombing may need therapy. Nor does anyone argue against therapy. Someone did a terrorism, but good old Theodore will ultimately be richer for the experience. Thanks, terrorism.
In the background, The Goldfinch wants to paint a portrait of 21st century America, but not really comment on it in anyway. Theo starts off the film in a terrorist attack (a parallel for 9/11), when he moves out with his father to Arizona it’s in the midst of the foreclosure crisis, and Theo eventually becomes addicted to opioids. These three things are all major crises of the past 18 years and The Goldfinch treats them as just some fun flavoring for Theo’s endless journey of self-recrimination. The film never wants to dive too deeply into anything, and instead just splatters a bunch of issues, characters, and emotions on the wall and then demands you respect it as Very Serious and Important.
Crowley’s approach to The Goldfinch seems to be that if everyone acts seriously, rest on some handsome cinematography from Roger Deakins, and work from a novel that won a Pulitzer (without realizing that books and movies are different mediums), then we will all sit in stunned silence at Theo’s journey even though its completely hollow. For example, when Theodore meets a young woman in one scene, the next scene they’re waking up in bed together, and then the next scene he realizes she’s cheating on him and he becomes heartbroken. For a film that certainly isn’t in a rush, this entire romantic relationship takes place in less than ten minutes. Goldfinch wants to go through the motions without investing the time or the detail this story requires. It demands credit without doing the work.
The Goldfinch is not only a vapid prestige picture; it’s also grotesque. Rather than exploring tragedy and grief in any meaningful or thoughtful way, it offers a vague homily. It seeks to comfort without compassion. The best scene in the movie is when Theo’s mentor Hobie (Jeffrey Wright) explains antiques. If this movie was just two-and-a-half hours of Ansel Elgort and Jeffrey Wright doing Antiques Roadshow, that would be infinitely better because at least then it would be honest and you might learn something.