The Goldfinch (2019)
Written by Peter Straughan
Directed by John Crowley
I often use sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic to get a sense of how people perceive a movie. I might use this when I’m interested in comparing my favorites with critics and audiences, or in the case of my We Wish You’d Forget film series find movies that universally panned. This year a strange anomaly came across those sites, The Goldfinch. From the trailers, I’d say I was mildly interested in this picture, and I enjoyed Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. I had even planned to see The Goldfinch opening week to review it, but life circumstances got in the way. However, I did read some of the reviews and was astonished that it wasn’t just panned a mediocre film but that critics seemed to revile it. Even more surprising was how audiences had the opposite reaction, and as a majority said they enjoyed the picture.
The story begins with Theo Decker being delivered to the home of the Barbours, parents of one of his friends and classmates. Theo’s mother was killed in a terrorist bombing at the Museum of Metropolitan Art, and he wandered home to their apartment in a daze. Mrs. Barbour takes to Theo and tries to provide a loving home for him. At the same time, the boy follows a lead to an antique furniture dealer where he reconnects with a girl who lost her uncle in the same bombing. Eventually, his estranged father shows up, and Theo is swept off to Nevada, where he befriends Boris, another young man wandering in life. Fate will eventually lead Theo back to New York City, and during his entire journey, he always keeps a newspaper wrapped object close to his heart.
Within minutes I began to see what the critics had been talking about. The film looks gorgeous, the cinematography is by Roger Deakins, so we’re talking legendary level. The way the explosion is shown in flashbacks, how the smoke emerges like an entity from around the corner. The aftermath of the museum with ash falling like snow take what could be a horrifying moment and, filtered through the haze of disorientation, it is a quiet and sacred frozen moment. When you hire Deakins for a film, you know you are going to get a picture that achieves monumental levels of beauty.
What is missing is the emotion and coherent development of themes in the script. I kept waiting for the emotional aspects to kick-in, believing the neutral tone of the opening was reflective of the numbness Theo felt in the wake of the bombing. That empty feeling just continues throughout the picture. When characters do show a reaction, it feels like a performer acting, never genuine. Luke Wilson, as Theo’s father, is particularly awful, he’s not a fantastic actor, but I have to think the director had some part in not helping him build a good performance. The child actors are not strong, but I always try to forgive a kid because that goes back to the adults who were supposed to aid them in each scene.
I have yet to read the novel, and it is on my long list of books to get to, but I could tell as we reached the ¾ mark that chunks were being cut out. Theo’s relationship with Pippa, the little girl who lost her uncle in the bombing, is supposed to be a significant romantic subplot, and it falls flat. Theo ends up engaged to Kitsey Barbour, but there’s never time devoted to understanding this relationship. The one relationship that feels on the verge of being central to the story is Theo’s friendship with Boris. Boris definitely has romantic feelings for Theo, and Theo doesn’t rebuff them. I would have preferred if they swept away the whole Kitsey plot if it wasn’t going to be developed in the film and play up the struggle between Theo’s love for Pippa and Boris.
By the end of the film, I was very unimpressed and frankly bored with the whole thing. There was no depth to what happened, no compelling moments between any characters. It felt like the director wanted the picture to feel as disaffected and unimportant as possible, but then try to have moments attempting to be profound. There’s the sense that the filmmakers lifted the big plot points but abandoned any heart & soul the book possessed.