The Goldfinch Movie Review: Angsty Birds

The Goldfinch is an epic drama about loss, grief and trauma. Some may find those three subjects feel more like medicine than entertainment, but I feel it can be healthy when art gives us a way to cope with universal, if tragic, feelings. The Goldfinch is a compelling, compassionate way to explore them, mostly. 

Nicole Kidman and Oakes Fegley in The Goldfinch | Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Pictures/Amazon Studios

What is ‘The Goldfinch’?

As a child, Theo Decker (Oakes Fegley) survived a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His mother died in the explosion, but Theo escaped with the priceless painting The Goldfinch. He didn’t mean to steal it, but he just never got around to giving it back. 

Oakes Fegley in The Goldfinch | Warner Bros. Pictures

Mr. and Mrs. Barbour (Boyd Gaines and Nicole Kidman) are kind enough to take Theo in, and he gets along with their son Andy (Ryan Foust), less so with Platt (Jack DiFalco) and Kitsy (Carla Conners). Theo also finds antique furniture restorer Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), whose business partner Welty (Robert Joy) died in the explosion too, but Welty’s daughter Pippa (Aimee Laurence) survived with Theo. 

When ‘The Goldfinch’ flies

The Goldfinch is best when it stays with young Theo, and that is the bulk of the movie. Except for bookending segments, adult Theo (Ansel Elgort) isn’t in the film for over 90 minutes. That still leaves 50 Elgort minutes. The Goldfinch is two and a half hours. 

The Goldfinch
Aimee Laurence and Oakes Fegley in The Goldfinch | Macall Polay/Warner Bros.

These are smart kids coping with the aftermath of a traumatic event. Adults want to shelter them, but the kids know what happened. Theo is also a kid who can talk about art and literature with studied adults, so it’s not out of the ordinary that he’s attuned to his grief. 

Theo’s father Larry (Luke Wilson) comes to get Theo and moves him to Las Vegas with his wife Xandra (Sarah Paulson). Theo can read his parents and his new surroundings too. He can see that 51 days sober Larry is still drinking, and they’ve moved to a development where every other house has been foreclosed. Xandra gives him a look and he calls her on it, and she responds passive-aggressively. Theo is never the aggressor but he’s perceptive.

Luke Wilson in The Goldfinch
Luke Wilson in The Goldfinch | Warner Bros. Pictures

Theo doesn’t really have to do anything anyway. Larry can bully him and force Theo to go along with his scheme, but real life steps in. We’ve all probably known a Larry, someone who thinks he’ll get ahead if just this one scheme works out, but Larry didn’t end up where he is by making good decisions that worked out in his favor.

When ‘The Goldfinch’ lays an egg

The childhood story is more effective than the adult story. Elgort is great but the material doesn’t give him a vehicle as worthy as it gives Fegley. As an adult, Theo’s story becomes more contrived and relies on an absurd amount of coincidences to resolve the plot. 

Ansel Elgort in The Goldfinch
Ansel Elgort in The Goldfinch | Warner Bros. Pictures

Within 24 hours, Theo is in the right place to observe a loved one’s secret and every single person from his past happens to be back in New York the same night. The painting suddenly becomes more of a maguffin when it worked as more of a symbol in Theo’s childhood. I still wanted to see how it ends, but it’s a shame they couldn’t maintain the subtle and natural development of the story.

Why you should still see ‘The Goldfinch’

The Goldfinch isn’t perfect but what it has to say is worth forgiving some of its shortcomings. In the whirlwind of coincidences, grown-up Theo and Pippa (Ashleigh Cummings) still deal with poignant issues. The arts world of New York was important to both of them, but while Theo spent his life trying to get back to New York, Pippa has a hard time with even quick visits. 

Ansel Elgort in The Goldfinch | Macall Polay/Warner Bros.

New York means the world to both of them, but they both have different relationships to the tragedy that occurred there. It is a constant reminder of the bombing of the Met. That hits each of them in different ways given what each character specifically lost there, but neither of them can ever have pre-bombing New York back. 

I’m sure a lot of New Yorkers can relate to that, and it’s universal. Any person who’s had a tragedy in their home probably relates to before the tragedy and after. It need not even be a location. It’s just life. Things happen and forever change people, relationships, desires. That is a journey worth taking, even though in real life we don’t get to rush to the healing.