Barton Fink (1991)
Dir. Joel & Ethan Coen
Written by: Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring: John Turturro, John Goodman, Michael Lerner
The Coen brothers have made some of my very favorite films. Their filmography is notable in both its depth of quality and its stellar high-end pedigree. Even their lesser regarded films are typically enjoyable, and a cut above the standard Hollywood fare, while their best films are often regarded as classics. Barton Fink falls into this latter category, continuing a string of early offbeat classics that would set the tone for the brothers’ careers going into the 1990s. Though it may not be as widely seen as some of the Coens’ later films such as Fargo or The Big Lebowski, Barton Fink deserves consideration along with those films and others from throughout the brothers’ thirty year run of filmmaking as one of the best in their catalog. The film continued to establish the brothers as visionary talents with a knack for crafting intricate, genre-bending screenplays, as well as furthering their unique and distinctive visual storytelling style. Barton Fink is a neo-surrealist nightmare of a comedy and it often vies for the top spot in my ever-shifting list of favorite films by the Coen brothers.
Though it might get overshadowed by some of the obvious high points of the Coens’ catalog that surround it, Barton Fink is an offbeat masterpiece in its own right. The brothers wrote the screenplay while taking a break from working on their third feature, 1990’s Miller’s Crossing, and the two films could not be more different in tone. A period piece, Barton Fink is set in 1941 and follows the titular Barton Fink (Turturro), a successful New York playwright who attempts to transition his career to writing scripts in Hollywood. Barton arrives in Hollywood and takes up a room at the dilapidated Hotel Earle, where he struggles to begin work on the wrestling picture which he has been assigned by Capitol Pictures. Barton is nebbish and anxious, a typical East coast intellectual, who worries that his relocation to sunny California and the shallow material he’s asked to work with for the studio will sever his connection to the common man and hinder his quest to bring a more perfect art form to the theater. One of the reasons for Barton’s inability to work is his loud and boisterous neighbor at the Earle, Charlie (Goodman), a salt of the earth insurance salesman who is a perfect foil for the high-minded Barton. Eventually the two strike up a friendship, with Barton fetishizing Charlie’s experience as an everyday working man. The film’s final third takes a dark turn with Barton becoming embroiled in a murder investigation, while Charlie is revealed to be an at-large serial killer with a penchant for removing his victims’ heads. In the end, Barton finishes his screenplay but is ultimately blackballed by his studio, and he is relieved of the pressure of the detectives who are investigating him by the nightmarish return of Charlie (or “Madman” Mundt, as he is referred to by the detectives) who becomes evil incarnate when he torches the Hotel Earle and leaves a trail of bodies in his wake.
Already known for creating films that are difficult to slot into any one particular genre or style of filmmaking, Barton Fink is probably the Coens’ most unclassifiable film to that point in their careers. While they had explored dark, anarchic comedy in Raising Arizona, that film lacks the elements of surrealism and outright horror that are present at times in Barton Fink. The film also features much more narrative ambiguity and opens itself up more to its viewers’ subjective interpretation than any of their previous films. Miller’s Crossing presents quite a tangled web of narrative interconnections and plot twists, but careful viewers can navigate the film’s twists and turns to arrive at a sense of narrative completion and truth. Barton Fink, however, doesn’t offer up a clear narrative solution, leaving its viewers instead with a series of unanswered questions and a plethora of potential clues that could explain some of the film’s stranger elements. What I love about Barton Fink is that it is so amorphous, and it’s a great film to watch again and again, refining your own personal theory to explain how it is that Barton experiences the things he does in the Hotel Earle. I’ve been doing so for the last 15 years, since first seeing the film.
My personal theory about Barton Fink is that Barton died at some point on his journey from New York to Los Angeles, and that the Hotel Earle is some sort of Purgatory, where the residents must be judged and tested to determine their ultimate fate in the afterlife. Barton’s cross country journey is elided, replaced by a brief shot of a wave crashing upon a rock that will become symbolically important later in the film, and from the outset his stay at the Hotel Earle supports the theory that there may be something more than meets the eye about the tumbledown, gloomy hotel. Upon check-in, Barton is greeted by Chet (Steve Buscemi), the hotel’s concierge, who ascends a set of stairs and emerges from a trap door to ask Barton whether he is a “trans or a res,” meaning a transient or resident guest. Barton replies that he will be staying “indefinitely.” The hotel’s lobby is dim, populated by many overstuffed arm chairs, illuminated by very few stray beams of sunlight. Barton’s room is bare, aside from a picture on the wall of a girl sunbathing on the beach, staring into the horizon as the tide comes in. The sunny image in the picture represents an oasis in the otherwise grim room. The hotel is decorated in drab greens and yellows that call to mind rot and sickness, and the wallpaper in Barton’s room peels, revealing oozing, sweaty walls. The shoes left at the door of each room for nightly shining seem to suggest a hotel full of guests, but Barton and Charlie are the only ones we actually see, giving the Earle the feeling of a haunted house. Barton’s interactions with the hotel’s staff, whether with Chet or with Pete (Harry Bugin), the hotel’s morose elevator operator, are exceedingly surreal, consisting of clipped dialogue and frequent non-sequiturs, as if Barton’s reality doesn’t quite match up with theirs.
Barton’s physical appearance throughout the film also supports this theory that he may be dead. Upon arriving in Los Angeles, Barton’s physical and mental state appear to steadily deteriorate until he is able to finish his screenplay. He is plagued by ever-worsening boils, which he explains away as mosquito bites. Though it is mentioned that there are no mosquitoes in Los Angeles as they are most commonly found in swamps, there is clearly a mosquito in Barton’s room, again indicating that something is not right about the Hotel Earle. He is also plagued by not only writer’s block, but intense anxiety, bordering on paranoia, as he hears sounds through the walls at the hotel. He becomes prone to extended bouts of daydreaming as he stares at the picture on his wall, fantasizing about escaping from the gloomy confines of his room at the Earle. Even outside the hotel, Barton is often shown anxiously sitting through meetings with studio executives, his pocked face glistening with sweat, giving him the pallid look of a corpse.
After a lover is found inexplicably dead in his bed, Barton’s paranoia turns to full on mania as he asks his only friend, Charlie, to help him dispose of the body and remedy the situation. Charlie leaves town, assuring Barton that everything is taken care of with regards to the body, and asks him to safeguard a package for him which we must later presume contains the head of the woman who was killed in Barton’s bed. Barton is left weeping in his room with the package and his unfinished script. As he is battling his writer’s block, Barton opens his desk drawer and finds the ubiquitous hotel room Gideon’s Bible. Opening the Bible to a random page, Barton discovers this verse from Daniel describing the demands of a King: “…Nebuchadnezzar answered and said to the Chaldeans, I recall not my dream; if ye will not make known to me my dream, ye shall be cut in pieces…” Turning then to the book of Genesis, Barton sees the opening lines of his own screenplay as the first two verses in the Bible. This juxtaposition of Barton’s own work with the verse in the Bible indicates that finishing his screenplay is to be the test he must pass to depart from the Hotel Earle. The King’s demand to “make known to me my dreams” echoes the demand of Capitol Pictures studio head, Jack Lipnick (Lerner), that Barton turn in a crowd-pleasing, studio friendly wrestling picture, rather than the sort of high art that Barton aspires to. This revelation, coupled with Barton’s encounter with the detectives, Mastrionotti (Richard Portnow) and Deutsch (Christopher Murney), who are on the hunt for Charlie, give him the impetus needed to finish his screenplay, which he does in one bout of inspired writing.
The final scenes of Barton Fink drive home the theory that Barton and Charlie are playing out a waiting game in Purgatory, while they attempt to finish out some aspect of their life’s work. After returning to the hotel from celebrating the completion of his screenplay, Barton finds the detectives in his room, rifling through his papers. They question Barton about his role in the murders, as another Capitol writer whom Barton had been acquainted with and admired has been found dead, and handcuff him to the bed, which is still soaked with blood. Before they can arrest Barton, however, the detectives leave the room to investigate smoke and heat pouring in from the hallway. They’re greeted by Charlie, who is wielding a double barrel shotgun, which he uses to quickly dispatch Mastrionotti. Charlie then charges down the hallway at Deutsch, bellowing “I will show you the life of the mind,” followed by a wall of fire. The hallway engulfed in flames around them, Charlie shoots Deutsch and then turns into Barton’s room for one last chat.
Charlie settles into the chair at Barton’s desk with the world-weary air of a man who has spent one long day too many at the office. When Barton confronts Charlie about his true identity as Madman Mundt, Charlie launches into a monologue that begins, “Jesus, people can be cruel. If it’s not my build, it’s my personality,” and in which he lays out his justification for his killings. Charlie feels sorry for the people of the world, sees their day-to-day struggles, and thinks that he can best help them by giving them assistance in sloughing off their mortal coil. He laments that he has no one to have mercy on him and help him out in a similar fashion. “You think you know pain?” he says to Barton, “You think I made your life Hell? Take a look around this dump. You’re just a tourist with a typewriter. I live here, Barton. Don’t you understand that?” Charlie has never been able to leave the Hotel Earle; the best he can do is transform it through his violence. While the hotel was once a Purgatory, Charlie has unleashed Hell on Earth, and he intends to stay there. He frees Barton from his handcuffs, and then tells him that he’ll be next door if Barton needs him. As Barton leaves his room with his finished script and Charlie’s package in tow, we see Charlie step through the inferno into his hotel room, symbolically passing into the afterlife.
Though his script is ultimately rejected, and Lipnick threatens to keep him in a professional purgatory by forcing him to work out his contract for Capitol Pictures while refusing to produce any of his scripts, Barton, too, passes into the afterlife at the film’s end. After the rejection, Barton is walking along the beach, still carrying Charlie’s package. There is a shot of a wave crashing over a rock that directly mirrors the shot that is used as a transition earlier in the film when Barton journeys from New York to Los Angeles. I believe these shots symbolically represent his character entering into a new state of being, both passing from life into death and his Purgatory state at the Hotel Earle, and then passing from Purgatory into some sort of Heaven on the beach. Barton finds a place to settle on the beach, and he is approached by a beautiful woman who sits down in front of him. “You’re very beautiful,” he asks, “Are you in pictures?” To which she replies, “Don’t be silly,” as she turns from him to stare out across the waves, raising her hand to shield her eyes from the Sun, and assuming the pose of the woman in the picture in Barton’s room. The film ends with the two of them sitting on the beach, Barton having finished his journey and finally ended up in the oasis depicted in his picture.
Barton Fink is so rich with symbolism and literary and textual references that one could easily come up with several other plausible theories to explain the events that take place in this unusual film. In fact, my preferred analysis is actually largely unsupported by interviews with the Coen brothers that I’ve read, and their stated desire to make a sequel to the film set in the 1960s runs directly counter to my supposition that Barton is dead. However, the beauty of a film like Barton Fink is that it is so open to interpretation and so varied in its themes that it can be exactly the type of film that any given viewer might be looking for on any given viewing. There are multiple allusions to creeping fascism and the United States’ eminent entry into World War II throughout the film if one chooses to read it in that way. There is certainly evidence that everything did, in fact, happen as it was depicted and that the world of Barton Fink is just supremely strange. My own interpretations of the film have changed with time, and could likely change again, but that’s always been a part of the fun of it for me. The film is also entertaining, funny, and populated with incredibly strong performances from its cast so that if one doesn’t care to dive deep into its narrative looking for deeper meaning and continuity, it can still be an impactful and memorable viewing experience. As I mentioned earlier, Barton Fink is somewhat lesser seen than other Coen brothers films, but it is certainly not of any lesser merit, and if you haven’t seen it yet I would suggest remedying that as soon as possible.