Review: ‘The Goldfinch’ Crumbles Under Its Own Weight
Sometimes you walk out of the theater totally bewildered by what you just saw. Confused, you ask yourself if you missed something or if that’s it. Why was a certain choice made? Who approved this? Why didn’t anyone raise a hand to such a poor choice? Ultimately, you leave as if you’ve been smacked across the face in insult, and all you can do is shake your head in disappointment and regret the choices that led you here. The Goldfinch is one of those movies.
With 2016’s Brooklyn in the rear view, John Crowley turns his sights onto a new project: the adaptation of Donna Tarret’s The Goldfinch. We should have known that an Oscar play this early in September was a warning flag, a flag telling us to tread cautiously, because while Crowley’s prior work is respectable, this film is not. Plagued by disparate elements that don’t fit together, The Goldfinch tries everything it can to muster an emotional response to grief, trauma, and a troubled upbringing, but never manages to connect the dots. It’s a puzzle without direction. A series of events held together by a meaningless painting of a bird, and put to rest with one of the most ludicrously absurd endings all year.
The plot goes like this. After a terrorist attack at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Theodore Decker (Ansel Elgort) must live on without his mother. Shaken with guilt, he moves from adolescence to adulthood with the burden of grief weighing on him as he navigates a particularly difficult life. From being abandoned by his gambling addicted father to then living with him to doing drugs in the middle of the Las Vegas desert to selling fake antique furniture, Theodore experiences a rough upbringing, but with him throughout all of this is a painting taken from the museum that manifests all the ill-will in his life: Carol Fabritius’ The Goldfinch.
The film operates on a totally banal level for about 80% of the film before it descends into irredeemable depths. Periodically you’ll question certain elements such as the decision to include a teen uttering “Who do I have to blow to get a cup of coffee around here?” to his parents, but not enough to fully write off the film. Conversely, there are instances that inspire hope, brief moments that hint at something better down the road that will redeem the film. Together, they make for a neutral progression: one step forward, one step back, repeat. But more concerningly, is how the ending implodes in remarkable fashion.
Simply put, the ending is bad. In fact, it’s so detrimental to The Goldfinch that it brings everything we spent two hours building towards down with it. I didn't read the book, but I did read the Wikipedia plot summary, and the film seems very closely adapted to it which, in this case, is not a good thing. The ending might of worked on paper, enough so to win the book a Pulitzer Prize in fiction, but not on screen as the sheer absurdity of the conclusion is more akin to a spy crime thriller than a reflection on Theodore’s long lasting guilt. In more ways than one it reminded me of The Snowman, fully jumping the shark and going to the far reaches of believability that extend far beyond what is even remotely ok.
The Goldfinch, the painting that is, acts as a remnant of preservation . . . or redemption . . . or hope. You see that’s one of the problems. What the painting means to Theo is not well defined. It’s a metaphor for something, but what that is is an enigma. The film doesn’t define what it wants the painting to be clear enough to make the ending pay off. It takes a back seat to Theo himself, acting only as an artifact he brings with him, up until the very end when it becomes this holy grail plot device. It is mostly meaningless until the film decides it isn’t, and I’m sure it’s more eloquently spelled out in the book, but here it just muddies the water.
The intermittent choices throughout The Goldfinch are enough to make you question the film, but it is the ending above all else that obliterates the film. This is without a doubt the literal embodiment of a Jenga movie: constantly pulling out blocks with perplexing choices, managing to hold itself together for a while, then ultimately collapsing in a catastrophic disaster right at the end, punctuated with the realization that you've been playing for two and a half hours, you didn't win, and now you kinda wish you hadn't played at all.