Theodore Decker (Oakes Fegley as a 13-year-old, Ansel Elgort as an adult) has suffered numerous tragedies in his life. His father, Larry (Luke Wilson), was a drunk with dreams of being an actor and abandoned his family. His mother was killed in a terrorist bombing at a New York City museum. For a time, Theo lives with the Barbour family. Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman) is a bit cold and distant at first but warms to having Theo around. The Barbour’s are considering adopting Theo when Larry shows up with his new wife Xandra (Sarah Paulson) and moves his son out to Las Vegas. There, Theo meets Boris (Finn Wolfhard), a wild young man from Ukraine that lives with his abusive father. When another tragedy befalls him, Theo runs away, returning to New York City to live with Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), a restorer of antique furniture he met after his mother’s death. Theo grows into an intelligent and charming young man, but he always has a cloud hanging over him from the chaos in the museum that isn’t just the loss of his mother.
Based on a novel of the same name, “The Goldfinch” is a sumptuous and beautifully shot film. It is filled with loving looks at classic paintings, antique furniture, lavish New York apartments, the desolate wasteland outside Las Vegas, the aftermath of a bombing and the near-perfect structure of Ansel Elgort’s face. For all its beauty and technical mastery, “The Goldfinch” lacks any guts. It provides all the makings for both a fascinating mystery and searing character drama yet ignores all its gifts in exchange for atmosphere and style. The movie wants you to be so dazzled by the visuals, you’ll ignore its fatal flaw: There is no “there” there.
That isn’t to say the film has nothing entertaining about it. Ansel Elgort puts on a master class in creating a character that has numerous layers implied in his performance. There’s a sense of danger in the adult Theo. He is broken by the loss of his mother, his feeling of guilt, the betrayal by his father and the choice he made in the museum. Elgort’s performance is nuanced and subtle, while also being complicated. I was never sure if Theo was ever telling the truth at any time. Usually he was, however, he is shown being capable of defrauding people. Does he treat everyone this way? I was never sure.
Elgort is turning very little story into a wonderful performance. The script from Peter Straughan is long on reaction shots and short on meaningful interactions. There are numerous thoughtful stares and quiet, emotional closeups as Elgort and others in the cast are getting their hearts broken or wearing them on their sleeves. Some of these scenes are affecting, but they lack any real punch since the movie spreads all the meaningful events so thin. It drops a few tidbits here and there to suggest something interesting is around the corner. Finn Wolfhard’s Boris (played as an adult by Aneurin Barnard) coming on to the scene introduces Theo’s dangerous side with his use of drugs and alcohol at odds with his cultured and conservative demeanor. These vices increase into adulthood with Theo crushing up pills and snorting them to dull the pain of his past. All of this implies a person on the edge of self-destruction, yet we don’t feel the danger of Theo’s lifestyle as it is always shown with a veneer of perfection. The filmmakers want the beautiful people to stay beautiful at all costs.
The movie has a listed running time of two hours and 29 minutes. There is probably a very good movie buried under the mountain of long, silent stretches. It feels like at least 30 minutes could be trimmed, if not more. While the film held my interest and I wondered what would happen next, I ultimately found the ending of the movie to have been a long, beautiful and boring ride. I didn’t know what to expect, but I expected more than I got.
“The Goldfinch” is rated R for drug use and language. Theo and Boris still some pills, crush and snort them. They also trip on LSD. They are shown drinking beer and smoking when both are underage. The pill snorting continues as Theo is an adult. Foul language is scattered.
Ansel Elgort, Oakes Fegley, Finn Wolfhard and Nicole Kidman are standouts in a cast that is filled with very good actors and performances. It is a shame all their efforts are wasted on a film that takes two and a half hours to go almost nowhere. I don’t know if it’s the fault of the novel the film is based on or the interpretation of that novel to a movie script. Wherever the fault lies, “The Goldfinch” is a lost opportunity to create both a compelling mystery and a deep psychological drama. I wanted so much more as the minutes ticked by, but all I got was a very slow train passing by with the occasional boxcar having mildly interesting graffiti.
“The Goldfinch” gets two stars out of five.
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