Review: Barton Fink (1991)


Enter into the world of the Coens’ best film!

Written By: Ethan & Joel Coen
Directed By: Ethan & Joel Coen

Where do I begin with Barton Fink? My fingers seem to be leaning towards typing about the interpretive nature of the movie, so that’s as good of a place to start as any. Barton Fink may be any number of things, it all depends on the individual watching the film. I’m still not sure what interpretation I’m leaning towards over the rest. I don’t know if meta is the right word to describe Barton Fink, but it works for me. Maybe it’s all in Barton’s head, maybe it is a metaphorical battle between good an evil. Perhaps Barton is fighting for control of his soul and the hotel is truly hell while Charlie is the devil. Maybe Barton is just a man going insane, or maybe it’s as simple as writer toying with ideas in his head as he’s dealing with writer’s block. Or, maybe it is as obvious as an indictment of Hollywood and what being a part of the Hollywood system entails, the loss of your soul. I can’t tell you what to think, when breaking the film down all of the above felt like they could be correct. There isn’t a correct way to view Barton Fink, all you can do is sit back and enjoy what the Coens have done with the interpretive art of film.

I was most drawn to the idea of discovery in Barton Fink. Every character, every visual and especially every bit of dialogue is like a new discovery. Each second of Barton Fink is like an experience unto itself, dripping with the need for the viewer to discover something. The dialogue is witty and authentic, it rolls around in your head like a fine intoxicating beverage. The visuals are provided by Roger Deakins, and if we have learned one thing by this point in time it is that Roger Deakins plus the Coen Brothers equals amazing visuals. Besides the obviousness of capturing the look and feel of 1940’s Hollywood, it’s just a joy to take in the visuals. It all comes back to the idea of discovery, the cinematography is full of little treats to discover, every frame providing some new nugget for the eye.

In the beginning John Turturro is constantly pausing and this leads to other characters pausing around him. It’s a brilliant tick to his character, it paints him as a simpleton that is lauded as a genius by a system desperate to buy and control every person with talent on the face of the planet. But, it goes beyond the simpleton angle, he has every chance in the world to turn back. Those pauses remind us that if he wanted to Barton could stop, he could avoid hell, he could avoid all that is to come by using the elapsed time he creates for himself to turn back and choose a different path. That’s really just the beginning of Turturro’s performance, he is steadfast in his display of skill as Barton. But, he is eclipsed by John Goodman as Charlie. I don’t know where to begin with Goodman’s performance in Barton Fink. In a straight sense he is funny and then menacing, but in the meta sense he is all that the picture needs. He encapsulates the range of emotion and ideas that Barton Fink represents, I can’t praise his performance enough.

Ethan & Joel Coen have made a career out of spurning the need for genre identity. They are the main reason I laugh any time I hear a critic complain about a film not fitting into a specific genre or lacking an identity. Barton Fink is a dark comedy, it is a drama, it is a satire, it is a fire and brimstone story, but it’s also a metaphysical mindfuck of a film. Barton Fink defies classification because it is a film of many different suits, but each and every suit fits perfectly. There’s no better way I can think of to describe Barton Fink, it is a movie where it all fits, it is perfection from beginning to end and still leaves you with plenty to think about when the credits begin to roll. I shouldn’t have to recommend a Coen Brothers film, their body of work speaks for itself and Barton Fink is their finest work yet, see it, you need to.




4 responses to “Review: Barton Fink (1991)

  1. One of the strangest films about Hollywood ever! Check out my review as well, nice review though!!

  2. Hola Bill! The Coens, a lot like Pixar, are at the top of their game and even when they stumble from time to time, they return with another film that will surely please the most diverse across many demographics. And I can’t agree more about the ‘what genre do we put this film in’ comment, especially since my own writing and films have suffered similarly at the hands of critics who would prefer a cookie-cutter approach. I think your summary line, “See it, you need to” is a perfect title for the entire article and well serves the idea that if you’re thumbing through a stack of Coen brothers films you need just keep looking if one film doesn’t suit your tastes because they do get around.


  3. Pingback: Postulating & Pontificating: Directing Props, Pt. 2! | Bill's Movie Emporium

  4. Rok – It’s definitely strange, but I find it very poignant as well.

    Rory – The lack of compartmentalization that Barton Fink adheres to is a major part of its charm for me. It’s a film that refuses to be defined or labeled, and I love it for that.

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