With The Goldfinch, we officially have fall’s first failed awards bait. Based on the popular, Pulitzer Prize-winning 2013 novel by Donna Tartt, this a wildly ambitious literary adaptation that just plain whiffs completely. The Goldfinch is unfocused, overlong, and plagued by wild and jarring shifts in tone. Though it debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it seems like everything this year has gotten rapturous reviews and instant Oscar buzz, The Goldfinch is the clear exception.
Tartt’s novel, by all indications, is not the sort of thing that’s easily adaptable to the screen, and that’s a big part of the problem — although by no means the only one. Director John Crowley made 2015’s wonderful Brooklyn, but he appears in over his head here, while screenwriter Peter Straughan — whose credits include Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Snowman — doesn’t appear to have been able to make heads or tails of the book.
Ridiculously overlong at nearly 150 minutes, The Goldfinch has a somewhat convoluted structure that goes back and forth in time between the childhood and adulthood of protagonist Theo Decker (played, respectively, by Oakes Fegley and Ansel Elgort, who don’t look much alike aside from both wearing glasses.) When he’s a kid, Theo’s mother is killed in a bombing at a New York City art museum, and in the chaos afterward, Theo is handed the titular painting, a valuable 17th-century work by Carel Fabritius. Orphaned following his mother’s death, he’s sent to live with a wealthy society family (led by Nicole Kidman), and befriends both an antique shop owner (Jeffrey Wright) and his ward — the niece of the man who gave him the painting (Aimee Laurence as a girl, Ashleigh Cummings as an adult).
The Goldfinch also has a long middle section in which a young Theo is taken to Las Vegas by his estranged, ne’er-do-well father (Luke Wilson) and his air-headed, sunbathing girlfriend (an underused and laughably miscast Sarah Paulson), and befriends a Russian classmate named Boris (Finn Wolfhard, from Stranger Things and the first IT movie), who introduces him to drugs. Boris is played as an adult by Aneurin Barnard, who acts like he’s channeling Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury. Contemporary scenes see the adult Theo as a suit-wearing, alcoholic pill-popper, obviously suffering PTSD after the bombing and his mother’s death, and caught up in incongruous criminal intrigue involving the painting and bogus antiques.
This was all probably much more sensical on the page, but here it feels like four different movies mashed together. What, ultimately, is this story about? The legacy of childhood trauma? The importance of the integrity of public art? How every boy needs his mother? Even more than the subject matter, The Goldfinch‘s tone is just all over the place.
Elgort doesn’t help, with a charisma-free, mopey, empty-suit performance. The two incarnations of his character are in just about every frame of the film, but there still isn’t much sense given by the end of who this guy is or why we’re supposed to care about him. Kidman is just fine in a somewhat underwritten role, but the normally capable Denis O’Hare for some reason plays his character — an art collector who threatens Theo — as a cartoonish, mustache-twirling villain. And I won’t say who, but the most interesting character in the movie exits early on.
There’s a bit of Moonlight vibe here, as we see two boys who had an intimate encounter as kids have an awkward reunion as adults, but The Goldfinch doesn’t handle it nearly as well as Barry Jenkins’ Oscar winner did. The ending is especially terrible, as the film briefly turns into Reservoir Dogs in its third act, complete with a heist and shootout. Then, all of a sudden, the plot resolves itself with a laughable deus ex machina.
This fall is going to have a lot of films that will kick off arguments, but it’s unlikely there will be much disagreement that The Goldfinch doesn’t work, at all.