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Non-Review Review: The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch is bizarre misfire, lurking somewhere within the uncanny valley of prestige awards fare.

The film looks just enough like a standard end-of-year prestige piece to convince at a distance. John Crowley knows how to frame a shot and how to edit a sequence, particularly when setting it to music. The production values are impressive. The presence of actors like Jeffrey Wright or Nicole Kidman help to sell the illusion. The film itself is built around a variety of familiar awards-friendly tropes, charting the struggles of an orphan who drifts through the social strata twenty-first century American while struggling with his emotions and his drug addiction.

The Goldfinch is decidedly artless.

However, there’s also just enough wrong with The Goldfinch to push it into some weird liminal space. No three members of the cast seem to believe that they are in the same movie. The film decides to spend two hours as a reflective mood piece, before cramming a fairly generic thriller into the next twenty minutes, and wraps up by having a secondary character explain an ending that happened entirely off-screen. Large passages of the movie consist of time-lapse montages of characters staring into middle distance as overwrought monologues discuss concepts of grief and guilt.

Most of The Goldfinch is dull and lifeless, but there are moments when the film swerves wildly into surreality. Those moments aren’t necessarily good, but they are at least more interesting than the hollow prestige trappings that surround them.

I sense a laboured metaphor.

The Goldfinch has the look and feel of an overly faithful adaptation. Writer Peter Straughan has a long and varied career of adapting challenging books for the screen, with decidedly mixed results; his previous efforts include Toby Young’s memoir How to Lose Friends and Alienate People and Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats, which each provided their own unique hurdles to adaptation. Perhaps Straughan’s most successful adaptation was his Academy-Award-nominated work on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which he co-wrote with Bridget O’Connor.

Watching The Goldfinch, one can feel the weight of obligation pressing down. It is an adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-Prixe-winning novel, which suggests a certain level of prestige and pedigree. There are extended passages of The Goldfinch which seem to have been not so much adapted as simply lifted from a different medium. Straughan employs a lot of voice-over to place the audience inside Theodore “Theo” Decker’s head, and Crowley employs a lot of static shots of actors’ faces and slow dissolving montages to accompany ruminations that seem like they could easily have been taken wholesale from the source material.

The film never gets into the swing of things.

The Goldfinch approaches its subject in a way that feels better suited to prose than to cinema. There are long passages of exposition rather than action. There are sharp shifts in tone and mood. There is no strong delineation between past and present, with an awkward structure that allows the two to intermingle. These are all aspects of a story that work better in the written word than in live action, with The Goldfinch occasionally feeling a little bit too much like an audio book with an A-list cast and an impressive screensaver collection.

The Goldfinch never seems too concerned about how it is supposed to work as a narrative. The first two hours of The Goldfinch leisurely drift through Theo’s life and times. The film opens in media res with Theo in Amsterdam, bloodstains on his shirt sleeve, explaining to the audience that “it is all [his fault].” The film then jumps back in time to his childhood, in which he is sent to live with wealthy relatives in New York after his mother dies in a terrorist attack. Half an hour passes before the film jumps to his adulthood, but before the opening scene. After twenty more minutes, the film jumps back to his childhood to pick up the story.

Now you museaum…

Obviously, there are ways to structure a story so that it runs across multiple timelines. The story could be structured linearly, running from Theo’s childhood back to the moment of crisis that opens the film. Alternatively, the film could adopt a looser and more fungible approach that approximates the way that memory works, allowing various narrative threads to intermingle with one another as the story moves fluidly between the various stages of Theo’s life in an attempt to discern some meaning or purpose to it.

The problem with The Goldfinch is simply that the film doesn’t seem to have put any real thought into the story that it is telling or the way that it is telling it, resulting in an awkward hybrid of these two approaches. The film spends long enough in each stage of Theo’s life that it seems to be moving linearly. However, no sooner has the film found a groove or a possible hook into that particular narrative than it switches gears. There are a number of flaws with this approach, but the most obvious is a lack of strong authorial intent. It never feels like anybody working on The Goldfinch made a strong choice about what the film was.

You’ve got to be Kid(man)ing…

This carried over to the casting. It’s debatable whether Ansel Elgort is a strong enough actor to carry a project like this, and it would be unfair to blame Elgort for failing to ground a project that seems so insistent on idly drifting from one idea to the next; an actor with greater screen presence would struggle to anchor a project as ill-defined as this. However, the cast often seem to have been plucked from different films. Nicole Kidman and Jeffrey Wright seem to believe they are working on a prestige drama, while Luke Wilson and Sarah Paulson wander into the narrative from a live action cartoon.

It isn’t just the actors. The Goldfinch struggles to find a consistent tone or even tempo. The first two hours of the film are given over to familiar weighty themes of identity and responsibility, following Theo as he is thrown from one situation into another. There’s a sense of awkward self-important to Theo’s journey from the War on Terror to the Great Recession, the film seemingly convinced that it has something to say, even if it never quite articulates it. “They built too far out,” remarks one character of the Las Vegas suburbs. “Now the desert is reclaiming it.” Beat. “And the banks,” he adds. This is what The Goldfinch passes for insight.

Table this for later.

However, at the two hour mark, The Goldfinch makes a sharp and inexplicable turn for lugubrious class drama into spectacularly ill-judged thriller. As the title of the film suggests, The Goldfinch leans heavily on the eponymous painting as a laboured metaphor for the act of surviving disaster. For the first two hours, those disasters are portrayed as personal; being abandoned as a child, living with an abusive parent, watching power being stripped away, drifting idly through the world unable to make human connections. However, the final half-hour decides to literalise this metaphor with robbery and guns and international adventures.

It would be an awkward transition, even if it were managed perfectly. It is not managed perfectly. Crowley first established himself as a director to watch with interMission, a low-budget Irish film that accomplishes pretty much everything that The Goldfinch fumbles. It slips across multiple story lines with a variety of different stakes, but it also manages to generate real tension. When The Goldfinch tries to transform into a thriller in its final stretch, it is decidedly unconvincing. The sequences are amateurish and clumsy, with no sense of stakes whether personal or dramatic.

“What you do is very baller.”

The Goldfinch doesn’t end so much as it surrenders. Having decided that being a thriller won’t work for it any more than being an earnest drama, The Goldfinch throws in the towel with one of the most spectacularly ill-judged closing sequences in recent cinema. Just as things look dark and it seems like hope might be lost, one character invites another to breakfast. Over breakfast, that character explains – in great detail – a bunch of events that happened entirely off-screen. These events offer an ending that is not only happy, but ecstatic to the point of self-parody. It would be brilliant, if The Goldfinch were in on the joke.

What little relief exists within The Goldfinch comes from the movie occasionally tipping over into the realm of the surreal. Around an hour into the runtime, Finn Wolfhard appears cosplaying as Timothée Chalamet, playing a character who will eventually age into a villain from Gotham. Peter Jacobson has a small role as the world’s least threatening loan shark, who looks particularly unconvincing in sunglasses and cowboy hat. The film’s love affair with questionable Russian accents pushes it into high camp. However, these moments aren’t as frequent as they might be. Most of the time, the film is just listless and lifeless.

Joker auditions were tougher than expected.

Early in the film, one supporting character considers the eponymous painting. “Does it have to be like that?” she asks. “Trapped?” The audience might empathise.

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