The Goldfinch is a hollow affair despite its visual prowess, mostly due to its inability to grasp and maintain the profound weight of its source material.
Nothing lasts forever. That’s the ultimate message communicated by John Crowley’s The Goldfinch, but with a duration that seems to last a lifetime and cinematic storytelling that is dead on arrival, the film seems entirely intent on proving the notion wrong.
Based on the nearly-800-page, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by Donna Tartt, this adaptation mines the depths of admittedly powerful themes for just under two-and-a-half hours and emerges empty-handed. It’s handsomely made with venerable cinematography by the legendary Roger Deakins, but The Goldfinch is a hollow affair despite its visual prowess, mostly due to its inability to grasp and maintain the profound weight of its source material.
There’s a lot of choppy thematic terrain covered here, from death to drug addiction to child abuse, but in the end it all feels like an exhortation for unearned accolades and emotional reaction. It’s a film meant to make you cry on multiple occasions, but don’t be surprised when the tears rolling down your cheeks are from tedium, not tragedy. Boring, banal and barren, The Goldfinch is a disappointment in all senses of the word—a true shame, considering this story deserved far better and Crowley’s creative choices feel misguided throughout, paling in contrast to his previous work, Brooklyn, one of the best films of 2015.
A young boy named Theodore “Theo” Decker (Oakes Fegley) is browsing the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York with his mother (Hailey Wist), who is subsequently killed in a terrorist bombing within the gallery. With his mother deceased and his father out of the picture, Theo goes to live with a wealthy family on the Upper East Side. The matriarch, Mrs. Barbour, is played by Nicole Kidman in one of those roles that is commendably performed yet wholly forgettable and shamefully awards-hungry (later we find Kidman sporting a hefty helping of Make-Me-Look-Older-And-Give-Me-An-Oscar makeup). Theo’s time with the Barbour family is the film’s most engaging aspect yet winds up regrettably ephemeral, the intrigue snatched away when Theo’s father (Luke Wilson) and his girlfriend (Sarah Paulson) reenter the picture and whisk Theo off to Las Vegas.
From here, we witness our protagonist deal with the scheming exploits of his deadbeat dad, who at one point casually obtains his son’s social security number and attempts to purge the inheritance left by Theo’s mother. We also encounter Boris (Finn Wolfhard), a shaggy-haired Ukrainian who introduces Theo into a world of alcohol, marijuana, Vicodin snorting and LSD trips. Twice during their budding friendship, the film interweaves gruelingly saccharine imagery with the maudlin melodies of Radiohead: Thom Yorke sings “Jump off the end, the water’s clear and innocent” as the two boys jump into a pool while on drugs, a scene so on-the-nose and blemishing that you may as well consider it a pimple.
The Goldfinch doesn’t quite know what to do with itself once it reaches the inception of Theo’s adolescent decline. It bobs and weaves between young Theo and adult Theo (the dreary Ansel Elgort), shuffling up the narrative like playing cards without realizing that it’s working with an incomplete deck. As an audience, we’re dealt a sloppy, shallow mess of a movie that can never find a proper balance of compassionate scrutiny. Emotionally, the film is empty as it digs for narrative diamonds that are cubic zirconia at best. As Theo’s life spirals out of control, especially in relation to the eponymous Carel Fabritius painting that serves as the movie’s primary thematic vessel, the film follows suit. A rushed final act leads to a final shot that intends to wow with its wise profundity, but ultimately serves as one of the most heavy-handed cinematic moments of the year. The fade to credits feels cathartic for all the wrong reasons.