- Warner Bros.
- “The Goldfinch” is the biggest box-office flop of the year so far. So what went wrong?
- It doesn’t spend enough time developing the characters, yet feels way too long.
- Because of the way the movie time jumps and withholds information, it robs key moments of emotional weight.
- The movie leaves dangling threads unaddressed by the end, even though they’re resolved in the book.
- Despite these key flaws, “The Goldfinch” is not a complete disaster, and fans of the book will find things in it they love.
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“The Goldfinch” just had the worst opening weekend for a movie so far this year, and was given disastrous reviews by many critics at the Toronto International Film Festival. While we don’t believe it’s a total trainwreck, the movie clearly botches key story beats thanks to a confusing timeline structure and a poor ending.
This may come to a surprise for fans of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller of the same name, especially given the stacked cast (Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman, Jeffrey Wright, Finn Wolfhard, Oaks Fegley, and more) and Oscar-nominated director John Crowley.
“The Goldfinch” movie was written by Peter Straughan, whose last screenplay (2017’s “The Snowman”) also resulted in underperformance at the box office.
There are three key issues with “The Goldfinch,” and why the compelling story laid out in Donna Tartt’s novel didn’t translate to the screen in this adaptation.
Warning: Spoilers ahead for the entirety of “The Goldfinch” book and movie.
Before we dive in, it’s important to note the movie was always going to be tough to adapt because the book is long and complicated
- Warner Bros.
“The Goldfinch” is the story of Theodore “Theo” Decker, whose entire life unravels when his mother is killed when a bomb explodes at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. At the time, Theo is only 13. In a state of confusion, he takes a painting from the wreckage – “The Goldfinch” by Carel Fabritius – and this theft lingers in the background of the story as a growing problem.
The book follows Theo as he’s forced to move to Las Vegas, where he has a messy relationship with a boy named Boris and deals with his father’s gambling issues and death. The book jumps forward eight years in the future, when Theo has become an antiques dealer in New York selling fakes, engaged to a childhood friend, and addicted to prescription medication.
There’s even more in there: his inappropriate obsession with a girl named Pippa who he saw on the day of the bombing, a wild time in Amsterdam towards the end of the book when he tries to recover “The Goldfinch” painting after its fallen into criminal hands, the ultimate conclusion when the painting is returned to the museum thanks to Boris.
It’s a lot of plot to cover. All this to say, this novel was never going to be easy to turn into a feature-length film.
The movie’s storytelling is confusing
- Warner Bros.
The movie misfires by trying for non-linear storytelling. The flashbacks and jumps forward between adult-Theo’s life and 13-year-old Theo’s life rob “The Goldfinch” movie of true cohesion.
Yes, the original story is a bit wonky because Theo is meant to be an unreliable narrator, but the movie goes straight from adult-Theo in Amsterdam – scrubbing blood from his suit and preparing to die by suicide – to a dust-covered 13-year-old Theo after the bombing.
For whatever reason, the movie also keeps the details of the bombing and Theo’s mother’s death and the reason why he has the painting a mystery for far too long.
The way information is dropped makes it so the emotional beats of the story are less impactful. We don’t feel anticipation when Theo first goes to the antique shop because the movie has yet to explain why he’s there. We don’t understand Theo’s relationship to “The Goldfinch” painting for nearly the entire movie because they save the scene where his mom tells him about it until literally the final minute.
While its possible Straughan thought teasing out the cause of Theo’s mother’s death and the presence of the painting in that strange yellow bag was a good way to draw audiences into the story, it winds up cheapening the real reason Tartt’s novel was so compelling.
The movie doesn’t spend enough time developing the characters, but somehow also feels way too long
On his own, Theo’s not the most interesting or sympathetic character, especially in his adult years. The beauty found in Tartt’s novel comes from the upfront display of Theo’s warm and caring life with his mother before she was killed, and his slow spiral afterward.
“When I lost her, I lost sight of any landmark that might’ve led me someplace happier,” Theo says in the opening of the movie’s first official trailer.
This is the crux of “The Goldfinch.” What happens when life is derailed, and the safety nets fail? How do we find inner meaning when the outside feels so chaotic?
The audience can only care about Theo’s untethered life if they know what he lost. Instead of seeing his mother from the start, and therefore feeling her absence in the way Theo does, the film withholds showing her face until the final minutes of the movie. And even then, the condensed museum scene falls short of explaining just how special and loving she was towards Theo.
“The Goldfinch” movie hits its emotional and narrative peak when Boris and Theo meet and develop a close relationship. But even here, things feel rushed.
- Warner Bros.
Tartt’s version of Boris is a phenomenal fictional character, and though actor Finn Wolfhard (“Stranger Things,” “IT”) does very well with his screen time, it’s not enough. Audiences who didn’t read the book likely won’t feel the depths of Boris and Theo’s bond.
The movie also doesn’t have time to dig into their relationship, which is more sexual in the book, or frame Theo’s bad decision making as a child to his deep loneliness and mourning of his mother.
All of this mess was a huge amount of character work that would have been challenging to convey in movie form. A film doesn’t have the luxury of dropping audiences into its protagonist’s head, conveying their slippery memories and PTSD and altered drug states.
There’s only so much story you can pack into a movie, which means “The Goldfinch” was likely best suited for a limited series structure instead.
The movie leaves dangling threads unaddressed by the end, even though they’re resolved in the book
- Warner Bros.
Did Theo break off his engagement? Were the murders involved with their art-deal-gone-wrong ever investigated? What happened to the fake antiques that Theo sold?
For such a long movie (with a runtime of two hours and 29 minutes), it’s almost impressive how little is understood at its end. Every film doesn’t need to wrap its storylines into a neat bow by the credits, but since Tartt’s novel does provide these answers – and those answers are all key to understanding Theo’s journey – it’s bizarre to have such little clarity at its conclusion.
The way the final sequence is cut together, you’re lucky if you understood what they were doing in Amsterdam let alone what happens afterward.
The final paragraphs of Tartt’s book tell the reader that Theo, amid his depression and shame and PTSD and loneliness, is trying to navigate back to a happier, more content place. The place he lost sight of the day his mother died.
It’s frustrating to watch the movie try and imply that he’s in a better place now with hollow imagery and a short monologue about how good can come from bad. After such a long slog, there’s very little payoff.
Despite these key flaws, ‘The Goldfinch’ is not a complete disaster, and fans of the book will find things in it they love
- Warner Bros.
If you read and enjoyed Tartt’s novel, there are flashes of brilliance in the movie’s adaptation.
Already knowing what’s going through Theo’s head, Fegley gives a great physical performance in the earlier parts of the movie. Additionally, many of the creative and stylistic choices around Boris and Theo’s scenes are particularly well-done and show a keen attention to detail.
Overall, the performances and cinematography (done by Oscar-winning legend Roger Deakins) were also both consistently good, with sprinkles of greatness throughout the long runtime.
“The Goldfinch” is not a total trainwreck of a movie. But it’s a shame that the story’s greatness was lost in an unnecessary muddle.