The Goldfinch ★★★
Post 9/11 Story Bombs at Box Office
Despite a budget of $45 million, “The Goldfinch” suffered a disastrous opening weekend, bringing in less than $3 million—in wide distribution—and earned a pathetic 25% rating on “Rotten Tomatoes,” the user-based film review website.
What happened? Adapted from the sprawling, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Donna Tartt, the film version—the tale of a boy on the cusp of maturity traumatized by a terrorist explosion in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art that kills his beloved mother—is inevitably long (one minute short of 2 ½ hours), a length tolerable to today’s audiences only if it’s chock full of action (it isn’t) or if it’s playing to more tolerant art house patrons (it’s not).
Because the story opens with a 13-year old protagonist and spans a decade, the aging of the characters is accomplished by the reader’s imagination in the novel, while two actors are required for several major roles in the film, leading to visual discontinuity, even when the actors are well cast and talented. Director John Crowley’s (“Brooklyn” 2015) frequent use of the flashback—including an overly obvious final scene—deprives the narrative of momentum while diffusing some of its power.
Moreover, easy plotline resolutions—in the novel and the film—are not fully satisfying. “Good things come from bad,” and the fortuitous emergence of a Rembrandt to justify theft and violence, verge on the corny; and the deadly antics required to recover and return the 1654 Carel Fabritius “Goldfinch” painting to the Metropolitan (it’s actually always been in The Netherlands) will strike some not only as extreme, but not credible. Surrogate parent Hobie’s (Jeffrey Wright) absolution of protagonist Theo (Ansel Elgort, the wonderfully kinetic “Baby” in 2017’s “Baby Driver,” earlier Oakes Fegley) is appropriately partial and withholding. Yet the script leaves unresolved the impact of Theo’s morally suspect actions on the essential reputation of Hobie (“I like furniture more than people”) as a trusted antiques dealer. In addition, one can understand rationally—and even emotionally—why the couple isn’t made, but that isn’t what the standard moviegoer wants or expects.
Another reason the film hasn’t found a large audience is that the story it tells may not be one most Americans want to hear. It’s a post-9/11 story, one that begins with a terrorist act that haunts and traumatizes its victims—Theo and Pippa (Aimee Lawrence, then Ashleigh Cummings) foremost among them—leaving the two overwhelmed by chance and fate, unable and unwilling to put the past behind them or to engage the present effectively and ethically. The charmingly manipulative Ukrainian émigré Boris (played to manic perfection by Finn Wolfhard and then Aneurin Barnard), is authoritative, charismatic, and curiously wise, yet his backstory is one of rootlessness and parental abuse. He shares with Theo a drug-fueled high-school year in the post-apocalyptic, far-flung suburbs of Las Vegas, where Theo lives with his father Larry (Luke Wilson) and Larry’s bimbo girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson). Dad gets on the wrong side of the city’s criminal element and imagines he can beat Vegas odds using astrological tables. Boris’s metaphor for life (and a major theme for the film) is a “weather event”—a tidal wave that one can’t predict or control.
The story is peopled by damaged psyches--not only Theo and Pippa, but emotionally stunted adults who offer Theo little or no love nor useful moral compass. Hobie’s world is black and white, instructive but of limited use to Theo in the messy universe he occupies. Another potential surrogate parent, Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman at her emotionally fragile and frigid, enigmatic best), experiences her own trauma; a failed mother and unfulfilled spouse, she loses her alcoholic husband and youngest son in a boating accident. Theo’s mother is dead, and his father sees his son simply as a vehicle for cash. Pippa’s survivor guilt is so deep, that as an adult she can’t help—let alone love—Theo. Only teen-age Boris kisses Theo on the mouth.
We want our heroes to have agency, to address challenges and overcome them. Though Theo is at the center of the story, he’s no hero in the classic mold. Indeed, he’s remarkably and consistently passive, swept along by Boris, the Barbours’ youngest son Andy (Ryan Foust), Hobie, Mrs. Barbour and others, even doing the bidding of his self-serving father.
A survivor above all else, and wallowing in regret, nostalgia, guilt, and a deep longing for his mother (he clings to “The Goldfinch” as a substitute for her), Theo meekly and nearly mutely absorbs Pippa’s rejection and, most surprisingly, agrees to marry a woman he doesn’t love. The character may work well in a novel, where the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings are more fully revealed on the printed page. But it doesn’t play so well on screen, where we want our “hero” to act like one—or at least articulate why he can’t.
“The Goldfinch”–both the novel and the film—deals with 9/11 as a traumatizing event. It’s a search for morality in a world that frustrates efforts to manage and cope. It effectively presents multiple versions of damaged moral and emotional psyches. It inhabits a post-apocalyptic landscape that’s appropriate for the 21st century–Las Vegas with its lawlessness, environmental destruction, and suburban desolation. On balance, it’s a complex, intriguing and appealing drama—for the art house crowd.
Director: John Crowley
Starring: Oakes Fegley, Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman, Jeffrey Wright, Luke Wilson, Sarah Paulson, Aneurin Barnard, Finn Wolfhard, Ashleigh Cummings, Aimee Laurence, Ryan Foust
Runtime: 149 minutes