Barton Fink (1991)


Very rarely is a film made about writers, which is strange considering how they are mostly responsible for creating the stories we see on screen. I am sure anyone who tries to write regularly, either as a hobby or as part of their career, can relate to the hilariously tragic story of Barton Fink.

With a film as convoluted and full of imagery as Barton Fink, it is impossible to look at it and not try and find some hidden meaning behind it. There is so much to dissect – the relationship the titular character has with his complete opposite of a neighbor, the entire corrupt system of showbusiness, the countless references to insanity. However, the greatest motif in this film is the Hotel Earle – a dilapidated, squalid old hotel run by the charmingly sinister Chet (Steve Buscemi). A stand-in for Hell itself, the hotel is the strongest indicator of the imagery the Coen Brothers so brilliantly spliced into their postmodern masterpiece.

John Turturro gives a tour-de-force performance as Barton, an intelligent young milquetoast who receives incredible acclaim on Broadway, but for the sake of a paycheck, runs off to Hollywood after he is offered a job at a movie studio. Instead of writing harsh, character driven dramas that appeal to intellectuals like Fink himself, he is relegated to writing a script for a low-budget wrestling film, something he knows very little about, if anything at all. Fink decides to stay indefinitely at the Hotel Earle, and the disgusting conditions of the barren hotel room represent his mind – empty and not quite traditional with the Hollywood archetype. Barton’s stay is made more tolerable by Charlie Meadows, played wonderfully by John Goodman, who is always excellent in whatever he does. Small roles from the always brilliant Judy Davis, the fiendishly underrated John Mahoney and the great performance from Michael Lerner all contribute to this very strong film, and while everyone gives great performances, they never overshadow Turturro, showing great restraint on the part of the Coen Brothers and their script.

To put this film into a genre would be a sin. It is a combination of so many different types of films – comedy, drama, film noir, horror, thriller – its a genre-bending panoply of different film influences, from Godard to Hitchcock to Kubrick. Yet the Coens don’t stop dare to stop there – they dip into other forms of art, including philosophy, literature, poetry and stage drama. There are even Biblical influences scattered throughout. To list all the influences the brothers had here would take up the entire review. It is a gutsy move for them to have so blatantly used ideas and influences from other artists, and what could have been a messy, incoherent film actually turned into a well-crafted homage to several influential artists. It proves how the Coen Brothers are true visionaries, and much like Quentin Tarantino, are able to use their wealth of knowledge of different mediums, blending them together and coming out not with copycats of the originals, but great tributes to their predecessors.

The appeal of Barton Fink is difficult to say. Like I mentioned above, it is not possible to categorize it. It is very funny, but not in a typical way – the laughs come from dark comedy, such as the titular character’s obsession with a singular mosquito that eventually leads to his downfall. Watching the film can be agonizing – it is slow-paced, and very dark and none of the characters have any redeeming qualities. However, the fun of Barton Fink comes in the hidden messages, the symbolism and the overriding themes that are thrown throughout the film. The story goes to unexpected places, and you can never predict what will happen next. The twists and turns make this a delirious and surreal journey into the world and mind of Barton Fink, a sensitive, intelligent man lost in a sea of ignorance and sleaziness.

The Coen Brothers will no doubt be remembered for their other, bigger films such as Fargo, The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men, and rightfully so – those are all huge, influential and brilliant films that will go down in history as some of the greatest ever made. However, Barton Fink is one of their underdog films, one that isn’t as beloved as the others, but one that stands right up there with them as brilliant pieces of filmmaking, showcasing the immense talents of the brothers as writers and directors, and some of the best artists working today.

Barton Fink represents all of us thrown into a world we don’t understand, as we try to navigate our way through this very strange and confusing world. The big answers in Barton Fink are left unanswered, mostly because it is much more fun to come up with our own theories, but much like real-life, there are no clear-cut answers to the big questions, and we, much like Barton, need to figure them out for ourselves.


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