In the grand scope of films to be inspired by best-selling literary adaptations, I clearly fall short knowing I’m simply not much of a novel reader. For better or worse, it may stay that way unless it were a book firmly recommended to me without end. Ready Player One was the last real example of that, and even then, I couldn’t finish it in time for the film to open). The Goldfinch, directed by the auspicious John Crowley, and based on Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winner of a book, is perhaps destined to belong in the “better” category, as in that it was perhaps better that I’d left the original source alone after the fact. This is not a model film, as far as awards season fare or literary adaps go. In fact, it struggles to do either justice, despite the best elements being present, but lacking a clear sense of direction.
Named after Carel Fabritius’s iconic 1654 painting, Goldfinch embraces its rather mysterious, awfully confusing aesthetic from the get-go. And Theo Decker is just as mysterious a human, with a family history that psychiatrists would revel in. As a kid (Oakes Fegley), he never quite had it easy after his mother died in a pointless terrorist bombing inside New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, while admiring from afar his schoolyard crush Pippa (Aimee Laurence, Ashlee Cummings). As an adult in the distant future (Baby Driver’s Ansel Elgort), he hides his insecurities well as a hotshot antiques seller and amateur art dealer, having been trained expertly under his unofficial second dad Hobie (a wonderfully consistent Jeffrey Wright). Make matters more complicated, he had swiped the titular art piece in the melee post-explosion by a disoriented old man, initiating a sordid chain of events in the realm of stolen collateral.
Crowley, who had impressed me once before with his tender immigration love story, 2015’s Brooklyn, makes a very in-form return to the director’s chair, blending swirling fictional melodrama with real-world consequences. This time, however, it comes with a heavier challenge, where I feel he had simply fell short in capturing Theo’s specific character arc. Otherwise, the non-linear approach, jumping nimbly from fractured childhood to bitter, drug-laden adulthood, that was still utilized with careful timing. As rebellious, impressionable as he appeared, a mild emptiness settled in where I ought’ve been more invested. I still was, but to a point that had been breached a bit too early, the moment Theo experiences a dramatic culture clash.
This film’s cast is perhaps where it excels best, particularly with Fegley, the folksy youthful lead from Pete’s Dragon and Wonderstruck, who absolutely blitzes the screen as the younger version of Theo. Elgort, in turn, encompasses his mature counterpart with a firm chip on his shoulders against the heavy drudgery. An anti-hero who feels most at home among the Park Avenue set, comfortable in the wings of temporary caretaker Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman), and her close-knit family. He’s then wrongly transplanted into the dingy desert wastes of suburban Nevada by his barely-there dad Larry (a mind-blowing Luke Wilson staging a wonderful minor comeback), and new wife Xandra (Sarah Paulson).
Larry’s the type who’s a bit down on his luck, with his last chance at financial solvency being an elaborate takeover of his son’s inheritance fund, with some mixed results. It’s a rather complicated structure, eased only with the presence of new bestie Boris, a zero-filter Ukrainian immigrant. Finn Wolfhard and Aneurin Barnard take equal turns as the ultimate Euro party dude, making the best go of an otherwise reckless and undercooked supporting role, Wolfhard delivering a small revelation. The rest of the cast fill the picture out appropriately, yet not to a fully spectacular level. Wright, Wilson and Paulson offer small victories, alongside Kidman in a rare change of pace taking her mere ensemble role with established confidence. The only character whose weight can’t be pulled is Denis O’Hare as Lucius Reeve, the shrewdly underdeveloped antagonist who hovers too close to Theo’s schtick, catching on quick to the painting’s person-to-person history.
Perhaps the more understated performer most may overlook because they’ll be distracted by the meaningless melodrama is Oscar-winner Roger Deakins’s (Blade Runner 2049) exemplary cinematography. As if we could expect anything less than compelling and picturesque, with a hint of windswept delirium merging the freeform American southwest with uptight big city structure as if they were one and the same. At least, while we’re witnessing it in Theo’s vision. Kellie Dixon’s editorial choices were just as much on point, particularly in the panoramic New Mexico sequences. Her Breaking Bad experience pays off in many a handsome spade that I’m sure could garner some small guild attention. As will Trevor Gureckis’s (Bloodline) near-experimental underscore, sure to leave a notch in the heart of many a film music enthusiast.
Those are all the things Crowley manages to make right about his approach to The Goldfinch. It’s a rather easy plot, made complicated by a narrative that commits to, and is ultimately weighed down by its source material. I did say I was better off not readying in the end, perhaps out of fear the novel and the film would be too alike. I hope to be proven wrong should I give the novel a shot in future. Nevertheless, this was one of those cases in the lengthy lineage of recent page-to-screen adaps where, because of its extreme faithfulness, its meaning was sadly lost on me, and its compassion lacking.
It is indeed melancholia in its purest representation, with Crowley lyrically capturing one person’s escape from a repressed or hidden darkness just like in his previous, far superior effort. But it’s melancholia that I really could not support for all it was worth, despite its visual, auditory, and personal strengths at a positively high range. This is the major issue I, and so many others will likely experience with this otherwise decent piece of adult-friendly autumn fare. For much of it, I knew this Goldfinch was a journey I could enjoy, until that inability to really care for our protagonist got in the way. And in effect, causing our symbolic bird to fall flat before the end. Until that point, it’s a film that, through sheer determination, can truly soar. (C-)
The Goldfinch is in most area theaters this weekend; rated R for drug use and language; 149 minutes.