The Goldfinch, adapted from the best-selling novel of the same name by Donna Tartt, is a film that obviously wants to be more profound than it actually is. However, as a character-driven drama, it works surprisingly well, even if the middle section does go on for a bit too long.
The movie traces the story of a boy whose mother died during an explosion of the Metropolitan Museum of Art as he grows into adulthood. The portion of the film exploring the immediate aftermath of the tragedy on the protagonist is absolutely riveting. The remaining two thirds of the movie, while still compelling and emotionally impactful, fail to live up to the earlier part of the story.
Thankfully, the narrative is presented in a nonlinear format, artificially creating suspense and intrigue. Granted, the film likely would not have worked as well if presented linearly, meaning that this structure is very much a crutch, but it successfully holds the movie up regardless. The weakest portion of the film is that in which the protagonist, Theo, is in the later part of his childhood. These moments feel more contrived and conventional than any of the other in the movie.
That said, the connection with Theo that forms early on in the film is essential in preserving the narrative movement. Should one not connect with his story out of the gate, the later portions of the movie are unlikely to do form said connection and as such, the two-and-a-half hour runtime will crawl by. But if one does get invested from the beginning, Theo’s journey of coping with trauma and grief is thoroughly affecting.
Surprisingly, the film never feels like it is trying to be a tear-jerker. In fact, the movie never quite aims to make the audience cry. Instead, it tries (and succeeds) to create a gut-wrenching feeling of anxiety that makes Theo even more sympathetic. What Theo goes through is undeniably sad, and it would be impossible to fully understand the heft of what he would be feeling, the film does a nice job of simulating that.
Ansel Elgort gives what is the best performance of his career so far as the adult version of Theo. Until this point, a majority of his turns have been solid, but one-dimensional. This movie requires him to show much more range. In more than one scene, the amount of emotion he is able to communicate through subtle and miniscule facial expressions is awe-inspiring.
The supporting cast is even more impressive, though, comprised of plenty of A-list names giving solid turns. Jeffery Wright, Nicole Kidman, Luke Wilson, and Sarah Paulson all give memorable performances, but the true standout is Oakes Fegley, who brings so much emotion to the film as the young version of Theo. If there is a weak link, it is Finn Wolfhard, whose Russian accent is a bit over-the-top and unbelievable.
Additionally, the movie’s visuals are absolutely phenomenal, thanks to beautiful cinematography from Roger Deakins. Even though this is the less likely of the two films Deakins shot to be released in 2019 to get him another nomination, his work here is nonetheless very impressive and worthy of attention. The gorgeous shots don’t necessarily add anything to the movie in terms of emotion, but they do serve to further immerse you in the world.
But it really is a shame that Deakins’s wonderful visual work is butchered by lackluster editing. The cuts in the film are frequently choppy (sometimes for no reason), and the soundtrack isn’t incorporated well. Frequently, the tone of the music doesn’t quite match the style of the movie, and even when it does, the cue seems to come a few seconds too early.
The Goldfinch is far from a perfect film, but thanks to excellent cinematography, a mostly very strong ensemble, and a fascinating character arc, it manages to overcome its issues to be a pleasant surprise. Those who are critical of this movie have their reasons, it will likely connect with most audiences anyway.
The Goldfinch opens in theaters on September 13.