As soon as promising Broadway writer Barton Fink (John Tutturo) steps inside the Hotel Earle, it immediately becomes apparent that something isn’t right. The unsettlingly long hallways, the oddly perky receptionist named ‘Chet’ and the lack of any other human residents all contributes to an incredibly eerie and creepy environment that is at the very heart of the Coen Brothers’ 1991 masterpiece. Like the Overlook Hotel from The Shining, which the Coens have cited as an inspiration, the Hotel Earle becomes a character of its own, embodying a terrifying, almost completely alien presence over Barton’s time in Hollywood. It seems to be leading him directly to his own downfall, almost as a punishment for selling out to the corporate fat cats of the film industry. Barton has made a very highly praised and successful stage production, and often professes of his desire to tell the story of ‘the common man’, to create a means to give them a voice. Not only does Barton not realise this means has already been created, Hollywood, he sells out his lofty principles for a pay check and tells himself he’s doing a good thing. Fink himself is a very odd central character for the Coens; unlike most of their ‘heroes’, Barton Fink is inherently dislikeable, a bumbling hypocrite who claims to fight for the common man but when the physical embodiment of the common man is in front of him, in the form of John Goodman’s friendly Charlie Meadows, he disregards his opinions and his stories. This basic ignorance on Fink’s part ultimately leads to his dramatic downfall in true Coen style, as the world around him collapses spectacularly.
At its most basic form, Barton Fink is a story about a writer with writer’s block, written by writers with writer’s block. Confusing? The Coens churned out Barton Fink after becoming completely stuck in the process of writing Miller’s Crossing, and the influence this frustration had on them is clear to see in Barton’s character. He becomes totally alienated and confused as to what Hollywood expects of him, he foolishly believes that they expect to make their assignment of a ‘wrestling picture’ into a masterpiece. What Barton cannot grasp is that he needs to lower his own standards in order to meet those of Hollywood, who expect him to easily scribble down a generic B-movie. However, due to its cryptic clues and heavy symbolism, Barton Fink has been debated to be about anything from slavery to the holocaust. The writer Barton tries to take advice from, W.P Mahew has gone from a great talent to a phony, loudmouthed drunk, who sings slave songs and has invisible shackles on chaining him forever to the curse of Hollywood. Not only do many see this as an overbearing metaphor about Hollywood and slavery, the later references to Hitler and the Holocaust also lead some to think that Barton’s fight for the common man (plus his later cowardice and ignorant nature towards them) are statements by the Coens about the general cowardice that many took in World War II when presented with the reality of the Nazi’s terror. Barton Fink is a lovely little puzzle of a movie, sparking off debates and theories that will likely never fully be resolved.
The reason I love Barton Fink is because every time I watch it I always have something new to ponder, something new to question and analyse through the Coens complicated labyrinth of a story. Not only is it a fantastic example of storytelling in cinema, it also has wonderful cinematography, exceptional acting and is one of the best effort’s of one of the best filmmakers of all time. The Coen Brothers may often be unpredictable in the quality of their work, but when they hit gold they make some of the most bizarre, fascinating and beautiful movies you’re ever likely to see. I love Barton Fink because I don’t truly understand it, and that means it will always be endlessly fascinating to experience again and again.