The scenes in Theo’s life are disjointed: of him both as a young boy enduring the aftermath of a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and as an adult who compensates for his anxiety and anonymity by fraudulently selling “Frankenstein”-like “antiques” made from parts both genuine and generic. Unpredictably, from one line reading to the next, these scenes in The Goldfinch are subdued, or explosive with emotion, or stilted, or overwrought, or calibrated perfectly, or any combination of the above. The older, spindly, mustache-twirling villain of a buyer (Dennis O’Hare, gaunt and gay), who catches Theo in his con, refers to these conterfeit wares as “changelings.” So, too, is the film itself: Theo’s memories skip around; time folds in on itself; emotional, neurological, temporal and physical connections link and shatter with little logic. Plunging into the depths of its lead’s subjectivity, a character whose life has been transformed by trauma and loss,The Goldfinch is as displaced and dissociative as its lead, and that’s the way it should be.
Theo’s mother dies in the bombing, visions of looking for her between curtains of ash flooding his unwaking mind, but his mother (and his survival) isn’t the only thing that haunts him: Unspoken desire, perhaps of the queer kind, also lingers there, too. That he took a pause to not follow his mother as she searched for Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson, surviving the tragedy; that he, instead, momentarily let his gaze wander, that one moment possibly changing everything he knows about looking, wanting, having—it keeps him in a stranglehold of guilt, shaping his conception of intimacy for the rest of his life. The closest relationship he had was wrenched from him in seconds. No wonder why The Goldfinch’s every scene feels strange, alien even, as if Theo’s attachments will forever be disordered.
Events in Amsterdam, which do not reveal themselves until the latter third of the film, send Theo back in time, his memories—in relation to family, love and artifacts, the hope that they hold and fail to provide—whirl around in a slipstream, the association between a scene of his youth and one of his recent adulthood obvious at times, obscure at others. Perhaps the wounds of loss and destructive desire have forced him to always recontextualize these scenarios, rebuilding and replaying them on a loop as he dances on the precipice of death, pills lined up on a fancy bureau in a Dutch hotel, drinking himself into oblivion.
Perhaps that’s why Theo is too adult in scenes where he is a child (played by Oakes Fegley) and too childish when he’s an adult (played by Ansel Elgort). In a state of self-destruction, maturation may not make sense. His 13-year-old version is, at first, too articulate, too stolid, too unshaken by what happened, and his adult self easily crumbles beneath pressure. Young Theo is, in spite of the (presumably) middle class background, good at performing the role of someone well-bred, enough to assimilate into the home and safety of the affluent Barbours (the matriarch of which is played by Nicole Kidman). His only outburst in his remaining days in the city is at school, where he confronts a bully in the bathroom, the one who set him up to be suspended, an event which placed Theo and his mother at the museum in the first place. He’s menacing, again, too much like an adult who’s learned quickly to harness his power. Conversely, as an adult Theo is on the brink of shattering, frequently found on the floor in the storage unit where he keeps his most precious thing: Carel Fabritius’s painting The Goldfinch (1854).
If director John Crowley keeps the painting hidden away for much of his film, its presence still colors all else, giving cinematographer Roger Deakins room to play with the contradictions of hope and doubt. Dusty darkness shrouds Theo’s memories, especially as his fate hangs in the balance, but an inexplicable urge to keep going, from scene to scene and from one time frame to another, throbs through every shot. A glow persists in Theo’s face, one that anchors what little left of his sanity he has as he’s tossed around by destiny. (Per Sondheim’s Into the Woods: “The light is getting dimmer / I think I see a glimmer.”) That which is kept secret paradoxically persists in Theo’s head; if he closes his eyes, the painting is in his hands, its comfort pushing through the layers of newspaper that keeps it protected. But he can’t look at it, lest his illusions be shattered. Hope and doubt, the two are terrifyingly entwined for Theo, who’s able to do little but see every relationship as a push and pull. Does his deadbeat father’s (Luke Wilson) new girlfriend Xanda (Sarah Paulson) offer protection or slithering sanctimony? Are the Barbours a safe haven or a trap door? Is his Ukranian contemporary Boris (Finn Wolfhard) an angel or a devil? What if everyone is both?
In Boris, contradictions abound. He sneeringly calls Theo “Potter,” as if to emulate the cruelty of sniveling rich-boy-cum-fascist Draco Malfoy. Like leading Pinnochio down a trail of sin, Boris introduces Theo to narcotics, but that Theo reaches heights of ecstasy and transcendence, in spite of a developed dependence, complicates Boris’ position as sinner or saint, rather presenting him as an amalgamation of the two. Boris plays a Malfoy-like character in desperation to compensate for his own battering by his abusive and alcoholic father, which ends up manifesting not as rivalry, but homoeroticism—as well as a cheeky reply to author JK Rowling’s portrayal of homosociality and masculinity. Theo and Boris are cut from similar cloth, destined to go down relatively similar paths, hopelessly enabling one another. It feels good and they feel safety in danger with one another. In a world that has splintered, Boris and Theo can be, for a little bit, broken together. Figuring out what it means to be a man in a world of such disintegration. Even that is not to last.
The possibilities of desire in displacement, though, pulsate throughout the film, if not through explicit sex, then at least through form. The streets of New York don’t matter as much to Theo, nor the barren ghost-suburb of Las Vegas where his father drags him. Instead, Theo’s gaze stretches over people and objects and everything else ephemeral. He looks as lovingly at the ash that descends like snow, or the changeling antiques he builds with Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), or Boris’s unkempt hair, or the water he’ll plunge himself into, as he does Pippa (Ashleigh Cummings as an adult, Aimee Laurence as a kid), the obsession that got him to turn his head at the museum that one day. Though not as daring in construction as, say, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or Last Year at Marienbad, Crowley’s film, preoccupied with time jumps and hallucination, illustrates a clear, if heightened, understanding of what Theo has left, and what’s left of him. He clasps onto the stories he can tell himself desperately, his nails puncturing through their skin. For Theo, desire is not limited to the erotic; desire is what can sustain intimacy and closeness. Theo’s ultimate desire is, despite the shattered nature of his memories, to not be broken.
We see all of this through shades of grey—light sometimes pressing through, other times we’re too suffocated by darkness. The film’s indecisive tonal register can feel similar, its residue of (neo-)melodramas past recalling Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Michael Curtiz and Todd Haynes. “You’re a blackout drunk, Potter,” Boris tells him; the film acts like it’s Theo trying to remember what he’s lost when he’s blacked out. It both bursts with sadness and stifles its sobs, unable to control whether its melancholy will detonate like a volcano or its sentiments will flow glacially like a river of lava. There is a magnetism to films about probably queer, definitely cracked characters with mommy issues and/or a dead parent, as if the films are trying to figure out what they are as much as their protagonist is. And The Goldfinch’s flaws give it space to be idiosyncratic, to be like few other prestige-y films this year. It’s a mess—but a mess one believes could someday reassemble itself into something new.