John Crowley’s The Goldfinch follows some kind of algorithm of suffering, detailing the misfortunes of Theo Decker (Ansel Elgort as Adult Theo, Oakes Fegley as Young Theo). The boy loses his mother in a bombing at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, during which he stows away Carel Fabritius' painting, The Goldfinch, in his backpack. What follows is a film of excess: a film scrubbed clean of its Dickensian magnitude, sanitized and glossed for a less than discerning film festival crowd. If The Goldfinch hints at the traditions of 19th century literary writing, or even implies a passing resemblance to Great American existential films like Ordinary People or Paris, Texas, it’s a superficial kinship. ‘Cause this film is nothing but glossy surfaces, paying lip service to actual despair. Even the rubble is pristine.
Young Theo ends up in the care of a WASP network, the matriarch (Nicole Kidman) accepting the boy in her household. He settles in nicely within the privileged class, whereupon he soon develops a friendship with a local antiques dealer (Jeffery Rush) and his ward, Pippa (Ashleigh Cummings as Adult Pippa, Aimee Laurence as Young Pippa). Things unravel immediately when Theo’s brutish father (Luke Wilson) comes around, casually removing the boy from NYC and displacing him to Las Vegas. There are a lot of small, largely inconsequential details that ornate the transition, with most of these characters serving symbolic roles intended to dispense narratively-convenient wisdom when the scene demands it.
The logic of the film’s editing pattern would seem to be queued to arbitrary, with the shifts in perspective from past and present rarely amounting to anything formally substantive. Even Deakins’ glossy imagery is flat here, concealing any tangible sense of grief through its neatness and acuity. Crowley’s previous film, Brooklyn, was a notable achievement and one of the best films of its year. The Goldfinch often felt like a series of compromises. There are times where Crowley’s sensibility shined through, but it’s buried and lost in material that’s too anfractuous and not suited for his brand of melodrama. It’s just too buttoned-up, with much of it unintentionally poking fun at its own filmmaker, who comes across looking like a fraud trying to pull off a brooding existential drama out of material that could probably be helped by taking a few creative liberties. What comes of this is a film not cerebral enough to be interesting nor thoughtful enough to be emotionally moving. It all rests in some kind of purgatory, a flat series of banal pleasantries that tries its best not to offend, never to stimulate… anything