Barton Fink Review
Barton Fink was the Coen's fourth movie, the breakthrough masterpiece which solidified their reputation as two of the leading American film-makers of the 90s and indicated to audiences that the astonishing leap in maturity that they’d made in ‘Miller’s Crossing’ had not been a fluke. It scored them their first Oscar nominations and won them a host of international awards including the amazing hat-trick of Best Actor, Best Director and Golden Palm at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival. It’s easy to see why. From the formalised beauty of the opening credits to its extraordinary climax, ‘Barton Fink’ is an exquisitely handled exercise in cinematic craftsmanship, beautifully lit, brilliantly written and boasting at its tortured core a career-best performance by John Turturro as the titular writer whose 'brief tenure in Hollywood' becomes an awful descent into hell.
New York. 1941. Self-important, tetchy Jewish playwright Barton Fink (Turturro) is the toast of Broadway, his new play Bare Ruined Choirs a big hit and his dream of a 'common man's theatre' on the brink of manifestation. Invited to Hollywood at $2000 a week, he finds himself adrift in a steaming Los Angeles, holed up in the decaying Hotel Earle and strong-armed by Capitol Pictures studio boss Jack Lipnick (Lerner) into writing a C-grade wrestling picture for Wallace Beery. Striking writer's block, he seeks help from famed literary star W.P Mayhew (Mahoney) and his 'secretary' Audrey (Davis), simultaneously befriending fellow Hotel Earle resident Charlie Meadows (Goodman). Despite the help of his new friends, Fink's inability to start his screenplay continues, and the pressure from Lipnick and manic producer Ben Geisler (Shalhoub) only pushes him further into self-doubt. Then a horrific, apparently inexplicable death leaves his sheets soaked in blood and places him at the centre of a murder investigation headed by two surly cops. Fink doesn't know it, but his problems are only just beginning...
'Barton Fink' is the Coens' best film, more daring than the admittedly brilliant 'Miller's Crossing', tighter than 'Fargo' and funnier than 'The Big Lebowski'. Only 'O Brother Where Art Thou' matches it for beauty and madness. It was their first film with Roger Deakins, who would become their regular DP, and sees them deepening and expanding the Depression-era palette they'd undertaken with Barry Sonnenfeld on 'Crossing'. The other ace in the hole is Skip Lievsay's superb sound design, which contributes a colossal amount to the atmosphere of the film. From the outset, in fact, ‘Barton Fink’ is heavy with dread, with foreboding and with an ever-present sense of mortality and corruption. The directors hound their protagonist with two repeated sounds (a high pitched ringing and a low, dull roar) and through continually attacking him from odd camera angles, often swooping down on him from directly overhead like a vengeful mosquito.
During the film's opening credits, as we see the faded wallpaper of the Hotel Earle (‘A Day or a Lifetime’) for the first time, Carter Burwell's superb, elegiac score introduces its remorseful mood and a series of high, ringing chimes sounds. Seconds later, in Fink's very first scene, as he takes the stage in response to the cries of "Author, author...", the sound of the audience getting to their feet echoes strangely, its muted thunder carrying on for longer than normal. His entry into the Hotel Earle – which, with its grotesque guests and suppurating wallpaper, will come to resemble Hieronymus Bosch channeled by Edward Hopper – is heralded by deep, anonymous rumblings that, even if one is scarcely aware of them on first viewing, nevertheless pluck disconcertingly at the subconscious. Bells rings throughout the film, paging Barton or, as in the case of Chet's desk bell, welcoming him to the Earle; they are the bells of hell, heralding the arrival of a new victim to be feasted upon. The doors of the Hotel Earle open and close with a sound like the door of a deep freeze closing, the whooshing air summoning up associated images of vacuum, hopelessness and, obscurely, corpses packed in ice.
The empty corridors give off an eerie industrial hum, like the sound of blood struggling through blocked arteries. In one scene Barton, struggling with writer's block, is staring at a picture of a girl on the beach over the desk in his room, and the sound of waves lapping at a shore grow steadily louder, intimating both the creative flow he lacks and a lustrous sensuality he yearns for. In another, he leans back in his chair, tormented by his inability to write, and stares up at the ceiling; the camera approaches him from directly overhead, switching from a slowly closing shot of his anguished face to a view of what he's looking at – the featureless ivory of the ceiling, and the odd, inconclusive sounds of someone moving about in the room above. And it just goes on, one gorgeously rendered scene after another. Barton's universe, its peeling wallpaper, creaking bedsprings and faded desk sets, is a brilliant example of the Coens’ utterly individual mise-en-scene and makes the film an absolute delight – albeit an unsettling one – to see and hear.
Some sequences in 'Barton Fink' are still revelatory, the Coens exulting in their growing mastery of sound and image; Barton and his agent Garland lean against the bar of a trendy New York hotel discussing his newfound success, their conversation relayed in traditional back and forth, over-the-shoulder two shots. It's a crucial early scene, as Barton both proclaims his beliefs and, to an extent, simultaneously betrays them. While he espouses his dreams of a form of living theatre for, by and about the common man, his worldly agent Garland literally roles his eyes: "You're the toast of Broadway and you have the opportunity to redeem that for a little cash; strike that, a lot of cash!" he urges, "The common man'll still be here when you get back. Who knows? They may even have one or two of them out in Hollywood..." Barton is quick to pick up on his game: "That's a rationalisation Garland," he says. "Barton," Garland replies tiredly, "It was a joke."
As his words end, a low, anonymous roar starts to build. As it grows louder, Barton studies Garland's face nervously, as if not comprehending what he said. Breaking the two-shot pattern, our point of view shifts to a side-on view of both men leaning against the bar looking at each other, a jarring dislocation as there seems to be no reason for the switch of perspective or for the now deafening roar (though the percussive ring of a dropped coin both briefly anchors our sensibility in the domains of the bar and further heightens the tension).
As the sound builds to a peak, the view changes completely, showing the sea as seen from a beach, a huge rock in the foreground which the surf has - in the moment we first see it - just exploded against, revealing itself to be the source of the mysterious roar. As the broken tide slowly recedes, the image changes again, this time in a slow dissolve, to reveal the cavernous entrance hall of the Hotel Earle, with Barton framed in the distant entrance. It's a breathtakingly adept succession of images to attempt within the first five minutes of a film, the cinematic equivalent of a speedy gear change in the first lap of a race.
'Barton Fink' also demonstrated the brothers' affection for the screwy colloquialisms of 30s and 40s America and, by extension, a mastery of the kind of breakneck comedic dialogue often featured in the films of Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges (although presented with considerably more ‘sauce’ than would have been permissible in their day). Fink's first meeting with Ed Geisler is a fine example. The lantern-jawed, black-eyed producer calls up a colleague to determine what he should do with the nervous writer in his waiting room, his manner somewhere between chummy bonhomie and acidic menace: "Lou! How's Lipnick's ass smell this morning? Yeah? Yeah? Yeah alright listen, the reason I'm calling is I got a writer here, Fink, all screwy, says I'm producing that Wallace Beery wrestling picture, what am I, the goddamn janitor around here? Yeah? Who'd you get that from? Well tell Lipnick he can kiss my dimpled ass! No no alright! Shit. Alright, no. Alright. (puts down phone) Okay Fink. Let's chow."
Michael Lerner's rat-a-tat delivery of Lipnick's machine gun dialogue during Barton's first meeting with him is equally priceless: "Say whatever the hell you want, the writer is king here at Capitol pictures, you don't believe me? Take a look at your paycheck at the end of every week. That's what we think of the writer... We're only interested in one thing: can you tell a story, Bart? Can you make us laugh, can you make us cry, can you make us want to break out, enjoy a song? Is that more than one thing, OK! The point is, I run this dump and I don't know the technical mumbo-jumbo. Why do I run it? 'Cause I got horse sense goddammit, showmanship! And also, and I hope Lou told you this, I am bigger and meaner and louder than any other kike in this town, did you tell him that Lou? And I don't mean my dick is bigger than yours, it's not a sexual thing, although you're a writer, you'd know more about that, coffee?"
There's also some cracking lines, not just the delicious 40s colloquialisms ("He's taken a interest!") but some darkly brilliant exchanges that epitomise the Coens' talent for deadpan humour. Interviewed by two overbearing policemen about his relationship with Charlie, one of them asks him, "Did you two have some sick sex thing?" "Sex?" Fink blurts, outraged, "He's a man! We wrestled." A long pause while the cop stares at him, before commenting: "You're a sick fuck Fink." Later, Fink eyes Charlie warily after watching him gun down the two cops. "Don't look at me like that," Charlie says, "It's just me, Charlie." "I hear it's Munt," Fink retorts, "Mad Man Munt." Charlie shakes his head, upset. "Jesus people can be cruel. If it's not my build it's my personality."
Speaking of Charlie, Goodman's character has one of the most exquisitely menacing entrances ever granted a Coen character. As Barton sits working, he hears the sound of someone in the next room crying... or laughing. It's impossible to tell which, but it's clear that whoever is in the next room is clearly in the midst of some intensely emotional experience. We stare - as if through Barton's eyes - at the stubbornly resistant wall, hearing the disconcerting sound of the laughing/crying that is happening beyond. In a scene worthy of Hitchcock, Barton calls down to Chet to complain about the noise. A second later a ringing phone is heard and the disturbing sound stops. We hear a muffled voice answer, ask "Who?" in an aggressive way, then slam the phone down. Barton is sitting on the bed listening to this, and we see through his eyes as he watches the unseen neighbour slaming down the phone and walking across his room to open the door, walk down the hall and bang on Barton's door. The sense of apprehension generated by this sequence is masterly.
All the different elements come together in an outstanding scene near the film's end, one of my favourite scenes from any movie, where Fink, having just completed the screenplay he's been frothing over for the past weeks, cuts loose on the dancefloor with a woman in a red dress, only to have a grinning naval jock attempt to cut in on him, prompting a mad retort: "I'm a writer! Celebrating the completion of something good!" Fink is roundly abused by the collection of grunts and swabs ("Hey 4-F, take a hike!", "Go sit on a tomato!") crowding the hall, but has a magnificent, if ill-fated speech to give in return: "I'm a writer you monsters! I create! I create for a living! I'm a creator! I am a creator! This [pointing at head] is my uniform! This is how I serve the common man!" At which point he's beaten to the floor by an obliging sailor. Even in their hero's defeat, the Coen's are never less than inventive. Fink slowly raises his head, looking blearily up from his floorbound malaise, and we switch to his punch-drunk point of view, the world aslant, soldiers and sailors tumbling thunderously to the floor like brawling gods. Gradually the camera moves towards the bandstand, the battle continuing to rage around it, until we disappear into the open bell of the lead trumpeter, as he stands to take his solo with a piercingly high note. Dissolve to darkness. Come up on the familiar clogged artery of a corridor, Barton stumbling along, dimly hearing a voice reciting something, which turns out to be the fascist cops reading his completed screenplay aloud.
The lead roles of Charlie and Barton are taken by John Goodman and John Turturro. The climactic exchange between Charlie and Barton is one of the few endings of a Coen film in which the threads of the central relationship, however stylised it may be, are brought to a genuinely satisfactory conclusion, instead of either being simply ignored ('O Brother Where Art Though'), avoided (‘The Man Who Wasn’t There’) or rendered invalid due to the nature of the material (‘The Big Lebowski’). Charlie's extraordinary, heartfelt speech to Barton, in which he justifies his homicidal acts as a form of murderous compassion, makes him more than simply a characterless, identikit killer (that fate would befall Peter Stormare as Gaear Grimsrud in 'Fargo') and also trashes all of Barton's precious ideas about his kinship with and understanding of the 'common man', as well as underlining the central metaphor of Hollywood/Hotel Earle-as-Hell. "I know what it feels like when things get all balled up at the head office," Charlie says earnestly, sweat beading his pudgy face, "It puts you through hell, Barton. So I help people out. I just wish someone would do as much for me... You think you know pain? You think I made your life hell? Take a look around this dump, you're just a tourist with a typewriter. I live here, don't you understand that? And you come into my home... and you complain... that I'm making too much noise..."
Rendered by Goodman in a career-best performance, with the roar of the flames drawing steadily nearer, their languorous seductive orange tones toasting his massive jowls, it's an utterly mesmerising scene, at once hysterically funny and deeply disturbing. Goodman's eyes glint with an evil light, yet his protestations have a ring of truth to them, for all their overdone, operatic intensity. This is the reasonable inner dialogue of the mass murder, the man who has convinced himself that, since all men share his sense of spiritual dislocation, he will be doing them a service by putting them out of their, and his, misery. It's to the credit of Goodman, Turturro and the Coens that Charlie's posturing and ranting remain believable and that, crucially, his freeing of Barton from the handcuffs near the end of the film is of a piece with his odd sense of right and wrong. The image of Charlie calmly entering his hotel room while the corridor burns around him – 'checking in' to hell itself – is unforgettable.
Of course, that scene wouldn't work nearly as well if Turturro wasn't watching him with an expression perfectly balanced between deep mortal fear and helpless self-recognition; which is why 'Barton Fink' is, to a large degree, Turturro's film. His performance is quite simply a marvel and only continues to impress on repeat viewings. This was the first time Turturro had been asked to carry a film (he's in every single scene) and he grabs the opportunity with both hands, sinking his teeth into his driven, self-obsessed character. Fink is a member of the educated, leftist Jewish intelligentsia and, for all his earnest posturing, is so arrogant and intellectually superior to everyone around him that he's about as likely to understand the lot of the common man as he is to run for President.
Turturro's physical and emotional degradation during the film is extraordinary and a lot more than just the result of make-up. Fink seems to be literally losing spiritual mass as we watch, his soul being absorbed by Hollywood's relentless greed. First he's afflicted by writer's block, then when he pours his heart out, it's ridiculed and dismissed by Lipnick as 'fruity'. His posture of psychological and spiritual collapse by the end of the film – he's literally a shell on the beach – is remarkable, his evocation of someone whose spirit has been broken so understated and yet so convincing that a final scene which could have been farcical or simply bizarre attains the level of tragedy.
And that's without even touching on John Mahoney doing his best F. Scott Fitzgerald as W.P Mayhew and the always brilliant Judy Davis (whose performance here complemented her other starring role in 1991, a similarly tortured muse in Cronenberg's 'Naked Lunch') as his 'secretary', plus Steve Buscemi and Jon Polito in creepy cameos! 'Barton Fink' really has an embarrassment of riches in the acting department.
Is it too much to see in the poleaxed figure of Fink - reeling from his recent creative success, ("...the toast of Broadway!") a reflection of the Coens themselves, glorying in the near unanimous critical acclaim that greeted their first three films, and to see in the continual pressures which they heap on their hapless Hollywood newbie a little of the insecurity that they were feeling in following up the much-lauded 'Miller's Crossing'? Regardless, this film revealed more of themselves than any of their previous work, their love of the 40s, their total disdain (at that time) for Hollywood and its crushing thirst for mediocrity, and their love of highly stylized visuals, beautiful production design and finely drawn minor characters.
It’s only 2.0, but at least it’s bright, clear and well-spaced. Lievsay's sound design is conveyed accurately and Carter Burwell's magnificent score sounds full and detailed.
While there’s nothing actually terribly wrong with the picture, I couldn’t help feeling a bit let down by it. The image is a bit grainy and soft at times and definitely lacked the vibrancy and depth I remember from seeing the film in the cinema. Some scenes were noticeably degraded and dirty (try 33:18 for a particularly shocking lapse). Generally good, then, but less than I feel the film deserves.
This is where this DVD really disappoints. A genuine two-disk French Collector’s Edition exists, with over an hour of extras and a 5.1 soundtrack (and burned in French subtitles, but no matter) so there clearly are people out there willing to spend time and money creating a good DVD of this worthy film, but apparently Universal isn’t among them. There’s nothing here beyond eight deleted scenes and a click-through picture gallery. The deleted scenes add no more than seconds of extra dialogue to each part of the film they relate to: Richard and Poppy Loved the Play is self-explanatory; there’s a slightly longer version of Garland’s pitch on Hollywood and the scene where the Desk Clerk Calls Barton and where Barton Meets Mayhew. Sink Overflowing slightly extends Barton and Charlie’s first meeting; Detectives are Downstairs and Note Under the Door are both slight and inconsequential as is Barton Bonds with Charlie. The Picture Gallery shows just over 20 images shot during the movie’s filming, including some quite interesting behind-the-scenes shots and an image which suggests that at one time the Coens were planning to show the outside of the Hotel Earle before Barton entered it.
It's a shame that 'Barton Fink' hasn't received a better DVD for its UK debut. The Coens’ work has always been hugely popular here and I’m sure there are many who would want the film to receive the best possible presentation. Being nearly 15 years old and an acknowledged classic, it's surely deserving of a proper Special Edition. As it is, if you don’t already own the film, this at least provides an R2 version, although currently only as part of the Universal Coen Bros boxed set, along with 'Blood Simple', 'The Hudsucker Proxy' and 'The Big Lebowski'. However, 'Barton Fink' remains a film waiting for a DVD to do justice to its genius.
10 out of 10
7 out of 10
8 out of 10
4 out of 10
Last updated: 26/04/2018 09:03:30