Monthly Archives: January 2015

Review: Mary and Max




Separated by continents, by decades of age, by gender, by ethnic background, by religious upbringing, the eponymous characters of Mary and Max—an eight-year-old Australian girl and a forty-four-year-old morbidly obese atheist in New York—should have as likely a chance of forming a life-long friendship as a clay-animation movie depicting this friendship should have a chance at being such an amazing piece of work. And yet, this anomalous movie forms a powerful, lasting impression: a poignant, and emotionally resonant exploration of human connection that flies in the face of standard storytelling conventions and works in superb fashion on every emotional level.

The story focuses on the unusual friendship formed by two misfits trapped in hellish domains that are as distant geographically, as they are psychologically similar. A narrator first introduces Mary: an eight-year-old Australian girl living an isolated existence amongst an alcoholic mother, depressed father, and unable to make friends after being relentlessly mocked for a brown birthmark across her forehead. Peppered with an assortment of distinct, creative character traits that help compose a portrait of Mary’s upbringing in compelling and memorable fashion (her love of concentrated milk, Australian chocolates, a pet rooster, her unmistakable birthmark), Adam Elliot’s writing immediately hypnotizes the viewer through a confident and peculiar tone that instantly announces that the following feature will be a ride through tour-de-force storytelling.

This precedent becomes further solidified in the next sequence, when the narrator introduces the second of the two titles characters: Max. After Mary has the bizarre idea to write to a random American she finds in the phonebook, she lands upon Max’s information and writes to the misanthrope in the hopes of finding answers to her everyday question about American habits. (In one of the few, and ultimately minor, weak moments of writing; however, this incredibly random way of initially connecting the two never sits quite right compared to the other surreal moments that flow much more organically). Max write back, although (even compared to Mary), he recounts an upbringing of heartbreaking consequence. Born to Jewish parents and raised in destructive circumstances (a father that left him, a mother that abused him, relentlessly bullied for his Jewish upbringing), Max has aged into a man sharing a parallel existence of isolation as Mary. He is depressed, agoraphobic, anxiety-ridden, extremely overweight, and on the verge of mental collapse.

Immediately, as the premise suggests, the idea of life being rekindled by their friendship has the potential to be an opportunity for cloying, indulgent sequences that resolve these existential problems through predictable, indulgent, or manipulative storytelling methods typically applied in the world of commercial animation…But that is not Mary and Max.

Instead, filmmaker Adam Elliot eschews such expectations by taking the story into difficult, ambiguous, and often very dark places. Moreover, this friendship goes through ups-and-downs, over long periods of time, that chart the successes and descents of both characters’ emotional lifetimes to imbue a feeling of raw authenticity. Max is eventually revealed to be suffering from an acute form of Asperger’s syndrome and his struggle to relate to the larger world around him descends into touching and moving realms that never treat his illness as a sideshow attraction (e.g. Rain Man) but as a means of imbuing insight and point-of-view to the audience into how this man has succumbed to such a devastating, hermetic lifestyle.

Additionally, the use of voice-over vis-à-vis the narrator, then the letters between the characters, may appear gimmicky on the surface, but the technique is used to exemplary effect as a means of further immersing the audience into the characters’ heads. With Barry Humphries as the narrator, Toni Collette as older Mary, and the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman as Max, the trio form a unified sense of tone that successfully transports the viewer into specific moods and habits of the characters in question.

Although some stretches certainly resonate stronger than others, the movie remains compelling in its entirety. The epistolary format feels closer to chapters of a novel than a typical film plot, and certain digressions into various aspects of the characters’ psyche help further demonstrate how character-driven this story remains above all else. Though numerous plot set-ups are paid off to powerful effect by the conclusion, the two title characters remain at the film’s center in a commendable application of the medium’s capabilities. The film confronts a number of formidable topics—abuse, mental illness, loneliness, suicide, depression, anxiety—without ever being shackled by the intensity of these themes and never flinches from the severity of their consequences within its Claymation setting. By its finale, Mary and Max concludes in similar, applause-worthy fashion. An ending both ambiguous and honest without any hint of dishonesty or undeserving of its ability to evoke such charged, wide-ranging emotions. Though operating with very different intentions and styles, the films of the Quay Brothers, Ralph Bakshi, or Miyazaki may bring to mind similar filmmakers hoping to expand the horizons of animated potential. Still, Mary and Max remains in a class as unique as the characters of its premise. A movie that sidesteps obstacles of conventionality and succeeds for finding that human connection between different worlds to ignite a genuine bond between both the characters and the audience.

Review: Short Term 12

Short Term 12 Brie Larson and Keith Stanfield

While the subjects of adoption, foster homes, child abuse, and troubled teenagers have been almost exhaustibly explored in film, Destin Cretton’s Short Term 12 occupies the very unique space of a group foster home to examine the lives of those troubled teenage residents and their equally troubled supervisors that reside within this limbo space between the streets and a future home. The movie mainly follows two teenagers—Marcus (Keith Stanfield) and Jayden (Kaitlyn Denver)—while also focusing on the relationship between their two supervisors: Grace (Brie Larson) and Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) Though a unique ensemble of equally interesting characters populate the cast, these four anchor the narrative—providing a clear focus into the major issues that plague the principals at play and illuming the dense problems that lie beyond the ignored doors of the group foster home that is Short Term 12.

Brie Larson’s Grace centers this confusing and chaotic world shared amongst her and these problematic kids that she tries to protect—made equally difficult by the ambiguous definition of her role. She is not their parent. Not to their psychologist. Not their friend. Not their guardian. And yet she and the other supervisors are forced to simultaneously play all these parts—made doubly worse by the fact that these kids are aware of the supervisors’ limited power in the form of any legal title—and often turn their ersatz guardians into the targets of their roiling emotions.

Grace and her fellow supervisor Mason are in the midst of a secret relationship that has reached a moment of crisis in the wake of Grace’s sudden pregnancy. The two are similar broken souls, coming from distinct but troubled backgrounds of their own, and determined to see that those kids under their care do not suffer from the same difficult upbringing that perhaps irreparably marks their own lives. Moreover, Grace’s difficult youth has led her down an often self-destructive path toward those intimate relationships in her life—namely those with Mason, her father, and what she worries will come to a breaking point upon the arrival her own upcoming child.

Still, while navigating this new world of being both expecting parents at home and substitute parents at work, the two employ every strategy in their arsenal to comfort one of the group home’s longest residents: Marcus, a troubled black youth on the eve of his eighteenth birthday, meaning that he will soon have to leave the safety of the foster home and return to his abusive mother, in the midst of his increasingly erratic behavior. As amazing as Larson’s performance stands as the true lead of the ensemble, Stanfield’s performance remains the most resonant and heartbreaking. While many others in the cast are given the explosive and “loud” moments that many confuse with great acting, Marcus’ character is clearly one of inner-turmoil made manifest within Stanfield’s big brown eyes that pour out emotion with a single, unforgettable look. His mumbled voice, slouched posture, and outbursts of rabid rage all combining to compose a compelling character often difficult to convey in the visual medium of film but managed to be stirringly embodied through powerful performance. In a movie filled with scenes of such raw emotion, those belonging to Marcus are perhaps the most unsettling and tragic through the remainder of the piece.

The second youth of the supervisors’ principal focus is Jayden, a young girl in the midst of her teenage years with an abusive father and similarly resentful of her surrounding world. Although she starts her storyline as the expected teenage girl filled with comebacks and snark at every turn—and due to the same nuanced writing that Cretton filters into the rest of his storytelling—Jayden matures into a distinct personality that offers a much more subtle version of this typically cliché ridden character and allows for a more memorable one as a result. Sometimes her story veers into obvious territory for the sake of mirroring much of Grace’s own childhood, and though this is still handled with deft in a way that never damages the emotional center, this should be attributed to Kaitlyn Denvers’ searing and devastating performance. Unlike Marcus, Jayden is prone to explosive fits of rage—anger that has been visibly bubbling beneath the surface and erupts with volcanic fury—at one point almost on par with Linda Blair and The Exorcist for the sheer, unearthly quality to her shrieks of hate and confusion.

Nonetheless, Cretton always ensures that Grace, her fellow supervisors, and the limbo of this foster home location remain the narrative focus. These digressions into certain subplots are mostly interesting for helping to complement the characters’ emotional trajectories, but Cretton wisely never forgets that the most distinguishing fact of this feature remains in the consistent chaos of the foster home. Though the role of Rami Malek’s Nate—a newbie supervisor whose role as the audience’s surrogate into this surreal setting is abandoned fairly quickly (and thankfully) after his initial function of orienting the audience into the day-to-day of the foster home—the narrative helps demonstrate in nuanced fashion how the emotional extremes of this world must be constantly monitored by the quiet strength of these social workers.

Though moments of the third-act steer the plot into what feels like a different movie, the eventual conclusions found for Grace, Mason, Marcus, and Jayden are all served to very powerful final effect. As someone who actually worked in such a group home for at-risk teens following his graduation, Cretton imbues an authentic impression into this world pushed both to society’s wayside and the fictional world of film, as well. Consequentially, Cretton paints a haunting portrait of a group home populated with humanity and horror for both those short term residents and long time supervisors found within the eponymous Short Term 12—and one unlikely to be forgotten for an audience allowed a glimpse past its doors that have been ignored for far too long.

Review: The Bad News Bears (1976)


Not half an hour into the 1976 classic The Bad News Bears, one of the little league players describes his teammates as: “a bunch of Jews, spics, niggers, pansies, and a booger-eating moron”. As if the opening shot of their new coach sneaking whiskey into his beer before introducing himself to the kids wasn’t loud enough—the audience has now been warned to strap themselves in for an unforgettable comedy quite unlike any other they may be accustomed to. The new coach in question is Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau): a former minor league player turned alcoholic, professional pool cleaner. To scrounge up some extra cash, Buttermaker agrees to coach a newly formed little league composed of the most unathletic kids to be found in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, some of which include: two Mexicans brothers unable to speak English, a constantly cursing shortstop, a smart-mouthed catcher, a near-sighted pitcher, and a very shy boy named Lupus picked on by his teammates.

Modern audiences (parents in particular) may find themselves shocked by the amount of vulgarity and utter disregard for political correctness on display. Besides the surfeit of racial epithets that fly out of the kids’ mouth, almost every scene with Buttermaker has him drinking (in one scene, drinking and driving with a broken windshield and the car filled with kids). Nonetheless, this is part of the film’s undeniable charm—a sheer refusal on the part of screenwriter Bill Lancaster and director Mike Ritchie to portray adolescence with any hint of phoniness, as though challenged by the audience. The movie revels in this tone: a dogged determination to eschew what is perhaps the most predictable genre outside the rom-com—the sports genre—by depicting both kids and adults as rounded human beings with flaws and attributes that make their final game a triumph of teamwork, despite whatever the final score may read.

Buttermaker’s story begins about as pathetic as possible—a washed-up ball player who shows up to collect his checks and exert as minimal coaching effort as possible. Beer cans are glued to his palms, and he passes out in a drunken stupor over the pitcher’s mound in the midst of an afternoon practice. After the kids demand a team uniform, and the other teams are shown to be wearing the logos of local, reputable business, the Bears are hilarious revealed to be wearing an advertisement for “Chico’s Bail Bonds” across their backs. As the series begins, and the team is continually humiliated in their outstanding losses, Buttermaker finally takes a stand—determined for this team to reach the championship. He recruits an all-star pitcher in the form of a young girl named Amanda (Tatum O’Neil), daughter to one of his former girlfriends, along with local bad boy Kelly (Jackie Earl Haley) to help bolster the team’s comically weak roster. The addition of these unlikely—yet significantly more talented—misfits to this team of oddballs allows their steady rise through the league, as well as a change to the team’s dynamics for the worse.

Buttermaker transforms into a demanding coach that no longer interacts with the kids as a friend or father figure but a power hungry and uncompromising dictator. During the final game, however, Buttermaker realizes in stark horror how badly his recent behavior has changed both his identity and feelings for the team. The alcoholic coach returns to his position a humbled man, who despite the parents’ protests, insists on making sure every single player—from the pansy, to the “booger-eating moron”, to the near-sighted pitcher, to the all-too-shy Lupus—finally get their chance to play ball.

By the final whistle, the boys reject whatever outcome appears on the scoreboard in favor of their victory as a team—splashing one another with Buttermaker’s beers, telling the rival team to shove the trophy up their ass and wait for next year, as they celebrate the joy of winning even in losing. Moreover, the movie delivers this unquestionable victory without any schmaltz or dishonest tone—the irreverence as unwavering and confident as from its opening frames with Buttermaker pouring whiskey into his Budweiser before meeting these equally irreverent kids.

Matthau’s performance as Buttermaker is of noteworthy delight—perpetually slouched, drunk, and puffing his cigar—but refusing to quit. His character arc is not one contrived to dishonestly pull on the audience’s heartstrings, but a broken man hoping to help these kids have some fun and learn something along the way. In a genre often guilty for gearing its narrative to the most obvious results—coaches pushing their players to an inevitable victory if they can overcome their differences—The Bad News Bears is as an anomalous winner as much as the goofy team that gives the film its title. As brash as it is brave, this is a movie whose story stands the test of time—its humor and heart as funny and moving as when it was released. And like this team by the final score, the movie understands that its victory with the audience is through the camaraderie of a genuinely shared experience. An experience that, despite any faults in craft, cannot be criticized for refusing to compromise and delivering all the best it has to offer.

On Alan Moore’s From Hell


“Murder, other than in the most strict forensic sense, is never soluble”

The above quote by author Alan Moore found within the appendices of his epic crime fiction saga—From Hell—explains in a single sentence how the author’s particular portrayal of this Jack the Ripper story distinguishes itself not only from the countless other version of this popular crime story, but from most works of crime fiction in general, and how this nuanced understanding to be explored over the five-hundred-plus page story allows the piece to rank amongst some of the best in the comic pantheon. Taking its premise from The Final Solution by Stephen Knight, From Hell adapts the theory that Dr. William Gull—the Queen’s Royal Physician—was ordered to kill the five prostitutes in Whitechapel, England in a conspiracy to protect an illegitimate son sired by Prince Albert Victor. With artist Eddie Campbell illustrating the gritty narrative with equally rough, yet impressionable images, From Hell brilliantly uses the unsolved murders as a vehicle for a larger examination into the psychological effects of the Ripper murders within Victorian society, its lasting legacy within the public sphere, and to consider the function of crime fiction as viewed through the prism of the police procedural.

Though the prologue and first chapter are a bit bewildering in the sheer amount of exposition and plotting thrown in the reader’s face (which pays off brilliantly by the epilogue), the second chapter stands as an excellent example of how this comic separates itself from its peers within the medium. Titled “The Fourth Dimension”, Moore utilizes the entire chapter for an intense character study into the psychology and backstory of Dr. William Gull: the posited Jack the Ripper of the tale. In doing so, Moore explicitly answers the identity of the infamous killer—eliminating the “whodunit” angle and the suspense that audiences are accustomed to finding within the genre, especially those other versions of the Ripper tale that use the killer’s identity as a means of exploiting the more sensationalistic aspects of the unsolved case.

Secondly, Moore allows a glimpse into the mind of the killer that—without necessarily imbuing empathy—offers insight into the psychosis behind the man ostensibly responsible for the crimes. Following the future Royal Physician from childhood, the chapter chronicles Gull’s early fascination and expertise with biology, through his introduction to Masonic society, and to his clandestine meeting with the Queen. Gull’s view of humanity is one fostered through years of simultaneous detachment and yet adoration for the human body as a work of art that finds a disturbing outlet through his surgical prowess. And while Gull certainly uses the murders as a demonstration for his own psychotic motives, Moore’s positioning of Gull as the killer also establishes how he could not have been so successful in this endeavor if he were acting alone. Instead, the extensive network of tacit agreement between the variegated levels of society expose a troubling web of gray morality that ranges from the Crown, to the underworld of the Freemasons, to the corrupted authorities, to the unsatisfied public and press.


In the fourth chapter, entitled “What Doth the Lord Require of Thee”, Moore not only details the surface motives of Gull’s crimes but examines the thematic resonance of what these murders are intended to represent. Or as Gull describes it: “Averting Royal embarrassment is but the fraction of my work that’s visible above the waterline.” With his driver accompanying him for a tour around the city, Gull outlines the logic behind his motives and the choice of location for each murder. Though they are intended to silence the prostitutes hoping to blackmail the Crown, Gull further intends for the murders to serve as a symbolic act of suppressing female empowerment and upholding the deeply entrenched symbols of masculine hegemony found throughout the architecture of London. He specifically points to the Churches of Nicholas Hawksmoor as examples of the hidden, mystical symbology riddled throughout the city that have been disguised throughout Whitechapel.

Moreover, this idea of architecture emerges an important theme to the entirety of the piece; specifically, the architecture of time and history. The “Fourth Dimension” alluded to earlier explores the metaphysical concept of time as a single dimension outside the limits of humanity’s perception of time as a linear sequence. Moore mines this idea as a means of investigating violence that ripples over specific eras in human history with disturbing parallels—and examines the role of violence as a catalyst for these inevitable springs of human behavior brewing beneath the surface of society to emerge.

Furthermore, From Hell explores the significance of these crimes as a commentary on the power structure evident within Victorian era. As Moore notes extensively within the appendices, the women’s suffrage movement had started to gain momentum, and yet even these initial strokes of progressivism were born out of the enormous disparity between upper and lower class standards of living—especially for women. As living conditions became so destitute that enormous numbers turned to prostitution, the prostitute became a symbol in itself to represent the abysmal standards of the working-class. Moore further cites the motif of the prostitute found in Post-Impressionistic paintings and literature, while also emphasizing the importance of From Hell’s employment of the Crown/Freemasons approving the murders to uphold their world of decadent indulgence, rather than grant any form of Royal credence to the poor, as further support of this idea.

Additionally, Moore takes full advantage of his setting and depiction of Victorian England to conjure a feeling of verisimilitude on the page. While most authors struggle to organically incorporate noteworthy figures of the period without breaking this wall of reality, Moore finds intriguing and plausible means for such historical figures to be inserted into the story. Such prominent figures seen include: Joe Merrick—aka The Elephant Man, Oscar Wilde, Aleister Crowley, Walter Sickert, Black Elk, and a few other figures that may not be as immediately recognizable. (Moore also describes a scene that had to be cut due to historical inaccuracy that included Inspector Abberline meeting Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley.) In most authors’ hands, the inclusion of such otherwise famous figures may distract the reader from the story, but Moore ensures that these figures complement the larger themes of the piece. The Elephant Man’s inclusion remains a particular highlight for those interested in the deformed man’s tragic story, and the unique implementation of his condition in relation to Gull’s own gnostic beliefs.


As often happens with Moore’s work due to the power of his writing, the importance of Campbell’s artistry that summons this world to life can be overshadowed. Some detractors have criticized Campbell’s style of gritty, rough, and more impressionable depictions of the period in a knee-jerk response to the distinct style. Nonetheless, this rougher representation of the era only further underlines the contrast between the idea of the Victorian era as a model of sophistication and cleanliness that was so at odds with the ugly morass beneath the surface. Like Moore’s narrative, these drawings develop a specific mood and atmosphere of Victorian society not as some enlightened era of human history, but one closer to a chaotic jungle of brute survival for those not holding status at the top of the food chain.

The ugly beauty of Campbell’s style culminates in Chapter Ten: “The Best of All Tailors”. In a chapter of sparse dialogue that again demonstrates the artists’ unique mastery of visual power in the comic medium, Campbell draws the savage, sadistic, and unthinkably cruel murder of Gull’s final victim—Mary Jane Kelly—to disturbing and emotional results. Those familiar with the famous photo depicting the gruesome crime scene will anticipate this murder with a mounting sense of dread, and the mostly nonverbal visuals panels only intensify the horrific murder in vivid detail. The reader’s eyes dart across the panels, watching with excruciating unease as Gull continues his heinous act without hesitation, and the reader can do nothing but watch the unavoidable horror.

Still, there are two more noteworthy sequences worth discussion for their similarly commanding and unforgettable display of craft. Following Gull’s internment to a mental institution, he undergoes a powerful religious experience that sends him soaring through the architecture of time previously mentioned. In his final moments, Gull’s given a glimpse into the metaphysical ripples of time across the eons. He views history in a number of forms: as seen through violence, vis-a-vis Renwick Williams/Peter Suttcliffe; through art, as seen through the paintings of William Blake and the literature of Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; and then through a more ambiguous yet very emotionally moving final sequence wherein Gull’s ghost ascends to the heavens.

Here, Gull finds himself upon an anonymous Irish hilltop at the beginning of the twentieth century—the century that he claims to have delivered shortly after his murder of Mary Jane Kelly. A possible interpretation for it being Ireland may be found in Moore’s note that two of Mary Jane Kelly’s various nicknames were “Ginger” and “Fair Emma”—suggesting an Irish heritage. Consequentially, Moore has returned the final victim back to her home country away from Whitechapel, where she now acts as a mother to four children. The four children’s names should be noted as: Anne, Katie, Lizzie, and Pol…aka the names of the four other prostitutes murdered by Jack the Ripper. (Annie Chapman, Kate Eddowes, Liz Stride, and Polly Nicholls.) The version of Mary Jane Kelly drawn here has had her face sewn back together, as indicated by the clear scar found across her right cheek. (Gull completely removed her face during the murder, leaving many to doubt whether he had even killed the real Mary Jane Kelly. As obviously, no DNA testing could verify her identity with scientific proof.)

And as Gull descends from the heavens to confront his four victims within this idyllic dream sequence, Mary Jane Kelly has the final victory. She stares directly at the ghost of Gull and commands him to: “Clear off BACK TO HELL and leave us be!” In effect, Mary Jane Kelly has cast Gull’s spirit away from the heavens to return to the realm from which he signed his letter sent to the police and which lends this entire crime saga its eponymous title:

From Hell.


The second noteworthy sequence arrives after the conclusion of the comic’s narrative and can be found in the final epilogue entitled “Dance of the Gull Catchers”. Moore explains in compelling detail to the initial germs of the project’s conception and his own motives in choosing Gull for the Ripper, as he meditates on the elusive nature of the public’s limitless curiosity for attempting to solve this unsolvable crime from over a century ago—not only in the Ripper case but crime fiction at large.

As he describes the various Ripper theories over the years, some interesting and thought-provoking, but most appearing more ridiculous as the decades go by—Moore’s point emerges without his needing to spell it out. Theories and justifications for the Ripper murders will no doubt continue to materialize, and as there will never be any way to scientifically prove these murders—nor ANY murder outside a scientific scenario—people will return time and again to projecting their own identities and sensibilities into the causes and then simplifying incalculably complex events into a series of sequences that will somehow satisfy their rationalizing of such horror. As Moore explains in an expanded version of the opening quote:

“Our detective fictions tell us otherwise… Provide a murderer, a motive, and a means, you’ve solved the crime. Using this method, the solution to the Second World War is as follows: Hitler, the German economy, tanks. Thus, for convenience, we reduce the complex events. The greater part of any murder is the field of theory, fascination and hysteria that it is engenders. A black diaspora of our tireless, sinister enthusiasm…Jack mirrors our hysterias. Faceless, he is the receptacle for each new social panic. He’s a Jew, a Doctor, a Freemason or a wayward Royal.”

As this quote describes in the author’s own words, From Hell functions so well, on so many various levels, by offering commentary far past the surface of the premise and the plot. In not only telling a story whose plot points are well-documented, but by revealing the killer’s identity in the opening pages, From Hell instead offers a commentary on the follies of human nature found within this infamous era and the crime that came to represent it. Moreover, the author and illustrator have used the very police procedural that audiences are accustomed to satisfying their curiosities in order to eschew the expected clichés and provide a deeper understanding into the act of violence itself. In doing so, and despite a reader’s best attempts, despite so many popular depictions found in crime fiction otherwise, and despite human nature’s best attempts to rationalize these horrific incidents found throughout history, Moore has successfully shown what so many others have tried and failed to previously reconcile:

“Murder, other than in the most strict forensic sense, is never soluble”

Book Review: The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt



 “When I looked at the painting…Only occasionally did I notice the chain on the finch’s ankle, or think what a cruel life for a little living creature—fluttering briefly, forced always to land in the same hopeless place.”

So the narrator—Theo Decker—describes the eponymous painting that becomes his obsession, his identity, and the catalyst for the majority of the plot in Donna Tartt’s latest novel: The Goldfinch. The book begins with the death of Theo’s mother in the wake of a terrorist attack within a museum, his subsequent theft of the Goldfinch painting, then follows the precocious teenager’s attempt to navigate life as an orphan within the sprawling metropolis that is New York City. Luckily, the devastated adolescent finds solace in the form of two guardians: the Barbours, an upper-class, sophisticated, yet flawed family that welcome Theo into their home; and Hobie, an antiques repairman that Theo finds after his business partner is killed within the same terrorist attack as his mother.

This first section begins incredibly strong—wallowing in atmospheric details that firmly situate the reader within the pandemonium of the attack and Theo’s rollercoaster range of emotions in its aftermath. A sequence that details Theo’s disoriented escape out of the charnel museum and into the rainy city streets evokes a grim psychological state that’s amplified to devastating effect upon his return to an empty apartment, where his mother is still missing. Tartt’s astounding ability to imbue sensory details into a manifestation of dread transform this simple scene set within a small apartment of a thirteen-year-old boy anxiously awaiting for the return of his mother into a torture chamber of agony. Every passing car, tick of the clock, groan of the floorboards becomes an omen of doom, as it becomes increasingly, obvious, and disturbingly clear that our narrator’s mother will never be returning to this apartment.

While too many books in this genre often drown themselves in the maudlin emotions that surround such a traumatic event, Tartt wisely eschews such melodrama in favor of focusing on Theo’s utter confusion and sense of existential self-removal. Though Theo certainly narrates with shades of the Holden Caulfield variety, his voice remains original and compelling throughout—his range of emotions always relatable and distinct: from the depths of depression, to laugh-out-loud descriptions, to the haze of drug addiction, to his suffocating love for friends and family, to the permanent abyss in his soul left by his mother’s death.

The real motions of the plot come into the play when Theo finds the gregarious giant Hobie, who takes an instant liking to the boy. More importantly, Hobie serves as Theo’s connection to Pippa—a young girl that caught his eye just before the museum attack that connects him to Hobie’s business partner. Nonetheless, the friendly oldster and the abandoned adolescent find an immediate connection—kindred souls with an unspoken bond of familial love for one another in the midst of having lost people so important to their daily lives.

The arrival of Theo’s father—a deadbeat gambler that fled to Vegas after years of abuse and mean-spirited drunkenness—marks the major next section of the novel. Though he appears to have turned a corner since abandoning him, Theo’s father returns as a supposedly new man ready to resume his position as Theo’s father in Las Vegas. Here, at his new school in the desert, Theo meets the unforgettable Boris—a Russian immigrant and veritable alcoholic in his burgeoning teenage years that introduces Theo to the wild world of habitual drug use, while also providing a genuine and anchoring friendship amongst Theo’s roiling lifestyle.

Although the former and latter third are fantastic, this section remains the absolute highlight of the piece. Tartt peppers in small pieces of plot amongst incredible character development and allows even the most minor details to have incredibly awarding pay-offs, while still successfully managing multiple levels of narrative progression both in plot and theme. Specifically: the exploration of confused adolescence, Theo’s descent into drug addiction, the foundation of his friendship with Boris—all of these major milestone occurring while the inevitable dread of the stolen painting and Theo’s escalating drug abuse loom over each event with palpable dread.

Moreover, Tartt ingeniously deceives the audience by repeatedly introducing an ostensibly positive element into Theo’s life (namely his father’s newfound resolve) only to yank the rug away and reveal his true intentions at the worst possible moment to superb emotional effect. By the climax of this section, Tartt converges all these small set-ups sprinkled just moments before into a single catastrophic moment that has been so brilliantly, invisibly constructed that its relentless downfall is capable of leaving the reader visibly shaking in its vivid and painful execution. As Tartt completely detonates Theo’s world with applause-worthy aplomb before transitioning into the concluding chapters, she has already solidified this portion of the novel as prose that deserves to be recognizes and commended as some of the best contemporary  writing in the field.

Although still engaging and expertly emotional, the last third remains the weakest of the major sections. Without going into spoilers, Theo has now become engaged in a variety of illicit affairs within the art community at large. All the while, the constant in Theo’s life of his purloined Goldfinch painting remains the unsubtle, yet perfect metaphor for his life of continuous change and simultaneous inescapable return to fate. This conclusion is only marred by the virtue of the plot suddenly overwhelming the previous character-driven execution of the previous section, along with certain passages of expository spouting that break the fourth-wall in their occasionally clunky reveals.

Still, the final chapters provide an opportunity for Theo to expound upon the novel’s various themes—most prominently, those pertaining to the importance of art in relation to the human condition and its legacy for the future. These passages sing with some of Tartt’s most gorgeous prose, and articulate the profound influence a single piece of art can instill over the life of both a single person and society at large. Conversely, this demonstrates how destructive the loss of single piece of art can hold for a society capable of permitting such destruction without calling for greater alarm and caution.

All of these ideas, of course, proven through Fabritius’ Goldfinch. A painting whose existence has come to define Theo’s life for the best and worst: the painting that led his mother to an early grave, that became his connection to her in death, that led to his meeting Hobie, then his best friend Boris, then to all the enormous highs and lows of conclusion—all due to the existence of this painting.

Moreover, the painting so perfectly personifies how such an entity can be responsible for the confluence of uncontrollable factors that later govern one’s life, as viewed through Theo’s own narrative. While at times, Theo’s life trajectory plunges to the absolute depths of despair—rendering destitute portraits of a life seeming to spin hopelessly out of control—Tartt’s final pages explicate in moving detail how the landscape between suffering and sublime often exist within the same vortex occupied and exemplified through art. Like the metaphorical Goldfinch chained to his perch, Theo recognizes that so much of the heartache in his life has also made manifest those moments worth living for: his friendship with Boris, his love for Pippa, his kinship with Hobie. More importantly, he recognizes that in telling this story how he’s made possible the transformation of his suffering and the sublime into a work of art as immortal and profound as the very painting responsible for inspiring him to produce it. As Tartt writes in a final passage:

“And as much I’d like to believe there’s a truth beyond illusion, I’ve come to believe that there’s no truth beyond illusion. Because, between ‘reality’ on the one hand, and the point where the mind strikes reality, there’s a middle zone, a rainbow edge where beauty comes into being, where two very different surfaces mingle and blur to provide what life does not: and this is the space where all art exists, and all magic.”