Director Deep Dive: Barton Fink

Director Deep Dive is a chronological look into a director’s filmography to see how they and their works grow and change.

Ever since their debut, The Coen brothers have strived to defy genre conventions. A simple noir story becomes mixed with elements of horror or a mob tale adds a tinge of black comedy. This blending of genres gives each film a distinctive style while still feeling like works from the same directors. With Barton Fink, the Coens turn the dial up to eleven.

Barton Fink is a beguiling movie and trying to unpack the potential meaning behind it is pointless. It is a film rich with symbolism and meaning, but also devoid of one singular message or moral. That these contradictory ideas work together is a testament to the strength of the Coen’s screenplay and to the beauty of the pictures on screen. Even if you can’t pinpoint what waves crashing against a rock means for Barton’s mental state, you can enjoy the imagery.

In the simplest terms, Barton Fink is a tale about the creative process. We follow Fink (John Turturro), a playwright whose hit it big on Broadway and soon gets the call to go to Hollywood. Barton shacks up in the Hotel Earle, which has seen better days. There he meets Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), a friendly insurance salesman who lives one room over. Assigned by the head of Capitol Pictures, Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), to write a wrestling picture Barton finds himself stuck, unable to write beyond the opening fade in. From there, reality and fantasy blend into one as Fink tries to get what is in his head onto the page.

The line between what is real and what is in our protagonist’s mind harkens back to Raising Arizona. In that movie, the fusion of reality and illusion was used to heighten the comedy. In Barton Fink, that combination is used to highlight the rut our lead finds himself in. This is the ultimate example of the Coen’s love for dream logic. As his writer’s block worsens, the tenuous line between his mind and the physical breaks down until it is impossible to distinguish between them.

The Coens set this up from the start by creating a tense atmosphere the moment Barton steps into the hotel. Taking inspiration from the works of Roman Polanski and The Shining, the film traps Barton in a place falling into ruin and disrepair. A place where you can hear the cries of others, but never see them. It is Hell in everything but name. That the hotel finally destroys itself the moment Barton writes something is certainly not a coincidence.

Barton Fink marks the first collaboration between the Coens and the legendary Roger Deakins, a partnership that will define both of their careers. Deakins does a fantastic job setting the tone of the film with the drab interiors of the hotel contrasting with the bright and lavish Hollywood. Visual symbolism is a big component of the movie. Whether it’s the camera traveling down the plughole of a sink during a sex scene or the walls of the hotel bursting in flame, this trio captures it all.

This is also the first film since their debut where the Coens took up editing. The care and detail put into each shot is striking, especially as the mysteries of the movie deepen. Sound design also has a noticeable role to play. From the groans and moans heard by the unseen tenants of the hotel to the recurring sound of waves crashing. The sounds of the movie further add to the tension.

A picture this ambiguous could have easily turned into pretentious drivel if not for the incredible lead performance. Turturro, back after his marvelous turn in Miller’s Crossing, never shies away from showing us the many faults of Barton. He’s egotistical, petty and regularly ignores the very “common man” he claims to write about. It’s also not entirely clear if he’s actually a talented writer at all. Still, Fink is a man thrust into a situation he doesn’t truly want and commodified into the property of a studio who is ultimately uninterested in his work. It’s hard not to feel a little sorry for him and Turturro knows just when to bring those feelings out.

John Goodman proves to be Turturro’s equal as the friendly and cheerful Charlie Meadows. Charlie is the only other hotel resident we see in the film. Goodman’s charm and warm image help mask the underlying menace of his character and when his true nature reveals itself, the film moves into the apocalyptic. There’s also Michael Lerner’s Oscar nominated role as studio head Jack Lipnick. Lipnick is one of the Coens’ favorite tropes, a rich man who uses his wealth and power to lord over those around him. There’s also Judy Davis, John Mahoney, Tony Shalhoub, returning Coens darlings, Jon Polito and Steve Buscemi all giving terrific performances. They even find time to add in a cameo from Frances McDormand.

Barton Fink became the Coen’s most critically acclaimed work to date. It still holds the honor of being the only film to win three awards at the Cannes Film Festival and became the first of their films to receive Oscar nominations (for Art Direction and Costuming, winning neither). Unfortunately, the positive critical response did not translate to a box office return. It makes sense for a film this cerebral and weird to struggle with an audience, but it is no less disappointing. Like many of the brother’s works, Fink became a cult hit after release with many a fan trying to fit the various puzzle pieces into a cohesive whole.

The Coens wrote Barton Fink after falling behind on their work with Miller’s Crossing. While they claim that Barton’s experience with the studio is nothing like their own, the painstaking process of writing clearly is. For as much as the movie keeps vague, the most consistent and obvious message is about the difficulty of creating. Whether it’s an esteemed play or a b-picture, it can be just as draining and the results can end up mostly the same. When it works though, you get to show others something beautiful.

Next Time: The Coens team up with Sam Raimi for a screwball comedy only they could produce in The Hudsucker Proxy.

Thanks for reading! If you liked this piece and want to see how I feel about other movies, including future entries in this feature, follow me on Letterboxd @BadTakesSwanson.