[Review] ‘THE GOLDFINCH’ isn’t quite a work of art

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THE GOLDFINCH

Rated R, 2 hours and 29 minutes

Directed by: John Crowley

Starring: Ansel Elgort, Oakes Fegley, Nicole KidmanFinn WolfhardSarah Paulson, Aneurin Barnard, Ashleigh Cummings, Luke Wilson, Jeffrey Wright, Willa Fitzgerald, Luke Kleintank, Denis O’Hare, Aimee Laurence

Emotional devastation caused by destructive acts is what fuels the engine of director John Crowley’s THE GOLDFINCH. Each of the many carefully-crafted characters within are forced to deal with the fallout from annihilation in this modern-era iteration of a Rubble genre film. The first two-thirds of this cinematic adaptation of Donna Tartt’s best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel deeply embed us within their rich lives and the repercussions of their soul-shaking sadness and repressed trauma. Crowley and company create compelling drama, commanding our attention and demonstrating why this tale captured the world’s imagination and garnered such acclaim. However, in the third act, the filmmakers’ delicately-detailed construction completely collapses in on itself.

Thirteen-year-old Theo Decker’s (Oakes Fegley) world shattered when his mother died in a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He’s still covered in soot, lost in the throes of shock and disbelief when he’s sent to live with his classmate Andy Barbour’s (Ryan Foust) Upper East side family. He’s also keeping a big secret: he’s stolen a priceless painting from the gallery, Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch. It’s the bit of the past he could rescue out of the rubble from the explosion – a talisman to remind him of his mother. He even wraps it in newspaper with the word “Hope” displayed in bold lettering as he clutches it.

As an adult, Theo (Ansel Elgort) has attempted to distance himself from his harrowing past, fashioning a refurbished identity as a hotshot antiques dealer in New York City, wearing bespoke suits instead of hand-me-downs, and dating socialite darling Kitsey Barbour (Willa Fitzgerald). He’s even managed to keep the missing artifact hidden away in a storage unit. However, the painting and his painful angst are dredged up once again when an arrogant mistake of his own causes spurned client Lucius Reeve (Denis O’Hare) to dig up the dirt on Theo and his involvement with the titular painting. Theo’s painful journey doesn’t end there – rather it reignites his odyssey of grief and redemption.

Oakes Fegley and Finn Wolfhard in THE GOLDFINCH. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Pictures.

The collective characters that orbit our conflicted protagonist, those who fittingly radiate from him like a blast of powder from an explosion’s ground zero, are all dealing with the after-effects of trauma. Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman) treads lightly when it comes to caring for her newest charge as she doesn’t want to upset him like she has her favorite son, Platt (Jack DiFalco). Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), an antiques dealer and father figure to Theo, is dealing with the sudden loss of his business partner, Blackwell (Robert Joy). Blackwell’s young niece Pippa (Aimee Laurence), for whom Theo harbors a massive crush, is tasked to find a new normal after the explosion robbed her of her uncle and severely compromised her ability to play the flute – so much so, she’s forbidden from listening to the music she loves. Larry (Luke Wilson), Theo’s long-estranged, recently-sober father with whom he reconnects, is poorly managing his own self-destruction, shacking up with his gaudy mistress Xandra (Sarah Paulson) and racking up gambling debts. And Boris (Finn Wolfhard, a good actor saddled with an unforgiveably bad Ukrainian accent), Theo’s best childhood friend, copes with his father’s punishing physical abuse with drugs, booze and crime.

Though the filmmakers don’t put too fine a point on it, all of the women in Theo’s life post-blast nurture him through his grief with varying forms of medicated stimuli. Mrs. Barbour discreetly offers sleeping pills when his nightmares remain frequent. Pippa casually offers him a Methadone-laced lollipop. Later, Xandra carelessly leaves her Vicodin in the kitchen cabinets in a Ziploc bag like it’s some sort of snack. Kitsey condones his addiction. Better living through chemistry? Not so much, he finds. His anxiety still remains, easily accessible barely beneath the surface.

Fegley and Elgort do a tremendous job sharing the tortured role of Theo. They each infuse the character with a sense of angst, regret, and guilt, playing each emotion with a calculated, steely cool. Fegley, in particular, demonstrates a deft understanding of the facets and nuances of sorrow’s oppression. He makes us truly care for Theo around every twist and turn. Elgort’s insightful work occasionally functions to complement the young talent’s precise performance. Whenever he’s threatened, glimpses of that scared young boy are clearly spotted. Kidman’s restraint is also noteworthy as the cautious caregiver. She finds a confident quiet in Mrs. Barbour’s ethereal aspects.

The tonality of this piece is similar to WHITE OLEANDER without as clean a finish. Crowley and screenwriter Peter Straughan harness the power of a page-turner when delivering details about the characters and their strife. They, along with cinematographer Roger Deakins’ pristine imagery and production designer K.K. Barrett’s aesthetics, imbue the picture with a powerful, poignant atmospheric pull. Their work augments thematic ties in the narrative. Nevertheless, despite the long portion of the run time spent steeping us in Theo’s psyche, the filmmakers act as if they can’t wait to get out of it fast enough. The pace of the third act goes into overdrive, standing in stark contrast to what came before it, transforming into a mash-up of illogical montages, contrivance and convenience. It fails to sufficiently end on a satisfactory note.

Grade: C

THE GOLDFINCH opens on September 13.

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Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.