I have fragments of a memory I sometimes immerse in: I am 12 years old, sitting alone in the pews of the school chapel in my old Catholic school. It’s lunch break and the need to escape has led me to the quiet space of its halls. In the absence of company and the aftermath of a health incident, I sat knowing I’m slowly losing everything I have ever believed in; and while that was happening, I noticed the patterned floors and the carved mouths of Jesus Christ, Mary, and St. Joseph. I watched them form into smiles in my head and I thought of the hands that had carved them. And I wondered if it had been like this before?
So, I come back to the memory of myself as a child in that chapel, reflecting and looking at those wooden carvings and finding something solid in it. And I realize, it was love. It wasn’t just love from its own creators, but my mother’s love for the religion itself that had put me there. The intricate carvings, the blues and kind smiles reflecting. It was love. Similarly, it was Theo’s love for a painting that his mother had loved that carried him throughout his grief.
John Crowley’s adaptation of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is a mess. Its non-linear narrative paired with a lot of awkward cuts and messy editing puts an already confusing narrative at an odd state. As an adaptation, it comes off as a compilation of fragments from the book. The frequent recognition of its source material in its lines is devoid of the emotional impact that Tartt’s patient and vivid prose brought, and thus feeling stagnant at some points. It is Roger Deakins’ cinematography that elevates it, allowing us to marvel at some points—points in which we can see the world cross, in its organic ways: emptiness and life.
The Goldfinch isn’t cohesive but feels more like a fragmented memory suspended by grief. It never took flight as its grief weighs it down, but not enough to allow us to submerge in its moments. It keeps a remarkable distance away from its audience that I can sympathize with the difficulty in trying to understand Theo Decker’s grief.
Oakes Fegley’s and Ansel Elgort’s portrayals of Theo Decker is interesting. They both manage to do their best, but it is Oakes’ control towards his grief and loss that surfaces throughout the narrative. There is great restraint in expressing grief, and as we move forward, there’s this constant need to suppress it. So every time they bring it up, the painting comes to its surface like a ghost trying to break out of its entrapment.
It always starts with whats and whos of love, with what they love and where we put it and then it extends outwards, like vines encompassing those that are willing to connect. Hobie (Jeffrey Wright) talks about the painting’s legacy; love passed on for years, hands that have created something, and the knowledge of time passing it on to the hands of strangers, touched, yearned, loved, reproduced. An extension of that love forever rendered immortal, transcending through time. It was the possibility of it being lost that had propelled Theo Decker forwards to claim it back.
But despite this sentimental attachment to objects, we also overlook the path to where it leads us. That such a piece of art can lead us into someone else’s path is something we fail to consider. Theo Decker meets Boris Pavlikovsky (Finn Wolfhard and Aneurin Barnard) in the middle arc of the film and in the vast emptiness of the deserts of Vegas. And it is Boris that helps Theo release the painting back into the world. The last minutes of the film has Boris thoroughly explaining the rushed events back to us and in time, concludes it with a light chuckle, “Maybe some things are worth the trouble.”
Earlier in the film, young Boris bonds with Theo over their deceased mothers and in their own personal grief they find companionship. “Life eh?” he jabs at Theo in an empty pool. Later on, we see Boris look towards Theo in fondness and love as he relays the return of the Goldfinch back into the world. “Life, eh?” he finishes. And it isn’t until it leads us back to young Theo and his mother at the museum where she points to the Goldfinch, “I love that painting” that Theo has found a love that is brought forth from his mother’s.
The Goldfinch is a suspended mess of a beauty, but its ability to show us where all that love leads us to is worth something to pass on.