On the 25th Anniversary of its release, we look back at one of the Coen Brothers most mysterious and individual films, the Palme D’or winning Barton Fink.
“The important thing is we all want it to have that Barton Fink feeling. We all have that feeling but since you’re Barton Fink, I’m assuming you have it in spades.”
The cliché about the Coen brothers is that their films are basically unclassifiable (unless ‘a Coen Brothers film’ counts as its own genre. Whilst the duo known as “the two-headed director” certainly possess an individualistic streak roughly the size of Texas, their films generally can be broken down along recognisable line: The Hudsucker Proxy is a screwball comedy, Fargo a (incredibly bleak) thriller, Miller’s Crossing a gangster flick etc (ad infinitum). Not so with 1992’s Barton Fink however, whilst there are elements of everything from Film Noir to Comedy to Horror if you were determined to decisively give it a genre you’d probably just have to throw your hands up and just make a new genre called Barton Fink.
Whilst this makes the film sound like a post-modern nightmare, the plot is actually deceptively simple: Set in 1941, Barton Fink traces the fortunes of Barton Fink (John Tutturo), a celebrated young New York playwright who sells out by accepting a contract from a Hollywood studio to write a wrestling picture staring Wallace Beery. Fink, who is something of an insufferable intellectual snob, moves into the crumbling Hotel Earle, which occupies a space somewhere between a Saga cruise and purgatory, and soon finds himself beset with writers block. The hotel itself doesn’t seem like a conducive place to work considering that it seems to be as empty as the Marie Celeste save for the elfin doorman Chet (Steve Buscemi) and Barton’s neighbour, an affable salesman named Charlie Meadows (an Oscar worthy John Goodman). As the writer’s block refuses to abate, the hotel becomes more and more oppressive as Fink realises that the Faustian bargain that brought him to Hollywood might be more literal than he realised.
Barton Fink’s Hollywood is Sunset Boulevard by way of The Shining, full of cavernous lobbies and brilliant swimming pools. It’s hard not to get sucked into the drowning sensation that envelops Fink as his world becomes more Kafkaesque, but this is counterbalanced by the fact that it somehow manages to be a laugh a minute. From Tony Shaloub’s ridiculously hardnosed producer to Michael Lerner’s practically possessed studio head whose performance has to be seen to be believed:
25 years on there still hasn’t been a film that’s comparable to Barton Fink, it’s a strange beast that the Coen’s seemingly have little interest in returning to. It’s rarely held as the most beloved or well-known of their oeuvre, but it’s not just compulsively good filmmaking, it’s just plain compulsive.