Rarely is there such a strong dissonance between marketing for a film and the film itself as there is with “The Goldfinch.” I remember when “It Comes at Night” was released back in 2017, people were up in arms. Trailers made the movie out to be an intense horror flick about a group of people fighting against some unseen creature or force in the wilderness. In reality, it was a slow-burn thriller that was still a very good film, but not the one people were expecting. As a result, many left the theater with a sour taste in their mouths.
“The Goldfinch” purports itself to be some kind of intense drama with a dash of art thievery and crime mixed in for good measure. It’s based on a book of the same name by Donna Tartt that was published in 2013. I have not read the book, only heard great things about it, so my expectations for the movie were fairly high. Add into the mix director John Crowley, whose previous film “Brooklyn” told the story of an Irish immigrant and was loved by many. On top of that, Roger Deakins, the prolific cinematographer behind “No Country for Old Men,” “Skyfall” and most of Denis Villenuve’s films, was tapped to be DP on this film starring Ansel Elgort.
What “The Goldfinch” turned out to be was a bloated, meandering, boring, visually-pleasing but poorly-written mess. The narrative centers on Theodore Decker, portrayed by Oakes Felgley as a younger version of the character and Elgort as the adult version. When Theo was 12, he and his mother were caught in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which he survived but his mother did not. In the clouds of ash following the explosion, Theo grabs a painting entitled “The Goldfinch” and carries it with him for the rest of his life as a way to remember his mom.
The narrative deviates from there greatly as we follow Theo in two periods of his life where he moves in with a family friend and then is moved to Nevada to live with his alcoholic, absent father. The movie attempts to portray and tackle Theo’s journey through this trauma as he falls into a life of drug use and lying about antiques to try and save his business. This thread is so extremely muddled and poorly executed that it becomes incredibly confusing for the viewers. Major plot points that could have easily been introduced are omitted for the purpose of building some kind of mystery and tension, neither of which are achieved. And then in the last 20 minutes of this 149-minute-long film, it decides to become a crime movie, which is jarring and poorly done and senselessly puts a bow on a story that the viewer is never really invested in.
As an audience member, I was obviously supposed to care about the painting and Theo’s connection to it. However, between poor writing and Elgort’s subpar performance, that connection isn’t quite achieved. I will say, Oakes Fegely’s stood out as impressive as did Finn Wolfhard who played Boris, Theo’s Russian friend he meets while living with his dad who gets him addicted to drugs and falls in love with him.
The pacing of the story made it so that even these great performances were lost in a sea of monotony. There were about four other subplots that just resolved themselves or had no real effect on Theo’s arc and felt pointless. Had this film committed itself to being the crime drama it was pretending to be, it could have been something special, but the way it stands, it just wasn’t.
What good I can say about “The Goldfinch” is that Deakins once again created a visually stunning and compelling world in which to tell this story. The scenes in the aftermath of the explosion in the Met were haunting and beautiful. However, Deakins’ skill wasn’t quite enough to fix what was, in most regards, a mediocre movie.