I loved Baby Driver (2017). Then again, I love all the movies directed by Edgar Wright. Thus when I saw the trailer for The Goldfinch starring Baby Driver’s Ansel Elgort (Adult Theo Decker), I thought I would give it a shot. He was really good in the latter, so why not the former? The comparisons between these two movies bear a little more analysis, and as such I will warn: spoilers ahead.
In The Goldfinch, young Theo Decker (Oakes Fegley) loses his mother in a terrorist attack on an art gallery, of all things. This personal tragedy also happened to Elgort’s Baby in Baby Driver, though that time in a car accident. In both cases, each character holds onto mementos of their deceased parent, which act as emotional talismans whenever they feel lost in the events of their respective stories. Finally, each end up doing things that ride the line of legality in their pursuit of whatever end goal their plots demand of them.
I left that aspect of their stories purposely vague because as I sat through The Goldfinch I became increasingly frustrated with the murkiness of what was going on, and the pace at which it was revealed. Okay, so young Theo Decker’s mother dies in this explosion and he is understandably distraught. For much of its runtime, that is really all you know. He ends up with a foster family whose matriarch is played robotically by Nicole Kidman (Mrs. Barbour), though why he ends up there is never fully explained. His erstwhile father comes for young Decker and he moves to Las Vegas. Then dad dies and he runs away back to New York City where he started. Eventually he becomes an antiques dealer, involved in shady deals. Along the way, his crutch becomes drugs and alcohol. Things happen, but it seems virtually plotless up until the end. But whereas Baby very obviously wants to break free of the life of crime he inadvertently wound up in, Decker seems content with using drugs as an escape from his demons. Sigh.
What comes to mind is the parable of the Prodigal Son, and there is a certain analog with The Goldfinch in this story. It is made clear that Decker received funds from his mother, and thus goes off in pursuit of dissolution, as did the Prodigal Son. However, while the Biblical version has a coming to Jesus moment where he realizes that he no longer needs to struggle, Decker’s comes on the heals of being an accomplice to theft and murder. Further, there really is no lesson learned other than (I guess) that he needs to let go of his talisman, which was the title painting that he took with him from the wreckage of the gallery. By doing so, he finally moves on from the past. Yet it is very difficult to see any real transformation take place because of it as the movie ends basically right after he learns that the painting is returned to its rightful place. Up until that point, Decker seems to be willing to go to practically any lengths to hold onto it.
Call me a square Catholic, but I do not care to be “treated” to the roughly two and a half hours of self-destructive behavior as in The Goldfinch without some real moral payoff at the end. People make poor decisions. I have, Lord knows. But a lesson learned, in my experience, comes at its most poignant with difficulty, pain, and triumph. With The Goldfinch, there was difficulty and pain, but no real triumph. Instead, it was more like he had gotten away with a terrible crime. Yawn. Pass. Go watch Baby Driver. Nice suits, though.