Film Reviews

Barton Fink Joel and Ethan Coen

Rating - 10/10

Legend has it that the script for 1991's Barton Fink emerged nearly whole cloth in an absurdly short period of time as the Coens were blocked constructing the labyrinthine screenplay for their gangster epic Millers Crossing.  Despite its surface period setting, Barton Fink has the feel of a work dredged from the subconscious collective mind of the brothers, a caustically self-critical nightmare that resonates on entirely unexpected frequencies.  At the time of its release, reaction spanned from rapturous triumph at Cannes to alienated befuddlement.  Over the years, its place in the Coen filmography has been overshadowed by the occasional acknowledged popular classic (Raising Arizona, Fargo, No Country For Old Men) and one unforeseeable cult phenomenon (The Big Lebowski).  Barton Fink has fallen out of high visibility perhaps due to its thorough, multi-faceted strangeness.  Its veneer of prestige gives way to a cavalcade of bloody nightmare developments, but it does not feel like the made-for-cult bizarreness one can draw from David Lynch and his descendants.  The Coens' contribution to surreal cinema is as uniquely personal as that of Lynch and genre pioneer Luis Bunuel.

John Turturro is nothing short of amazing in his seriocomic turn as the titular character.  A self-important liberal dramatist in the early forties, his experience in Hollywood functions both as comic misadventure and a literalization of the devil's bargain artists have always dreaded in the commercialization of their work.  John Goodman gives a career-best performance that perfectly compliments Turturro.  While Turturro aggressively simplifies him as nothing more than a symbol of the common man he rants so much about him, he ignores a complexity and darkness in Goodman that explodes in the boldly apocalyptic finale, surely one of the bravest and most bizarre closing acts ever attempted in a semi-mainstream film.  The exact nature and symbolism of these characters and their relationship is kept carefully ambiguous, suggesting a multiplicity of readings that keeps the film from growing stale upon re-watchings.

In a very general sense, however, it is easy to see Barton Fink as an avatar for the Coens, or at least what they fear about themselves.  The depiction of writers block is completely different from, but has at least the gravity of, Charlie Kaufman's woes in Adaptation.  The surreal leanings of the film first become obviously apparent in a series of visual puns that perfectly convey the torment and tedium of Barton's struggle.  While the Coens are obviously sympathetic to this problem, they are also fearless of making the character dislikeable.  Beyond the idiosyncratic quirk that may cause some to dismiss Barton Fink there is a frightening examination of the artist's function and its possible sinisterness.  Early in the film Barton's pompous self-absorption can perhaps seem light or buffoonish, but as the film runs its course there is a serious anxiety about the writer's effect on society potentially being vampiristic, sociopathic or even murderous.

Barton Fink may be an impossible film to categorize, so oddly personal and difficult to compare as it is.  It is not surprising that many have reacted to it with detached confusion.  Like the best work of Lynch, however, it does have its own sense of internal logic, even if that cannot be strictly defined.  On its own terms, its wild tonal and plot shifts all belong, in their own way making Barton Fink a flawless and utterly uncompromised filmic nightmare.  Beyond all this loftiness, the film is packed thoroughly with the kind of grand entertainment the Coens are uniquely gifted with.  The ratatat dialog, spoken by ringers like Tony Shalhoub and John Mahoney (in a hilarious turn spoofing Faulkner as a drunken asshole), can stand up to the unforgettable rhythms of any of the Coens' popular films.  The cinematography (Roger Deakins' first lens work for the Coens) and art direction create a kind of consistent and singular setting rarely found in any movie.  All of these elements cohere into a peculiar and indescribable experience, maybe the most unique universe the Coens have yet created.  Despite its contentious status in the critical canon, Barton Fink may be the Coens' finest creation, immortally puzzling and dazzling in equal measure.  All the more so when it all goes up in flames.