Tuesday, 4 April 2017

I've Just Seen: Barton Fink (1991)

 Director: Joel Coen

Barton Fink raises more questions than it answers. A playwright arrives in Hollywood with promises of glory and fortune, but finds himself blighted by writer's block. His hotel, The Earle, chosen to keep him honest, seems to ooze glue or wax from its walls; much like the sweat that pours off Barton's neighbour at The Earle, Charlie Meadows. Charlie seems to be a jovial, friendly man yet there is something off about him. Throw in an aloholic screenwriter, his female assistant, and a tranquil picture of a beach beauty gazing off into the distance, and you have one twisted tale of Hollywood non-success.

This would make a great companion piece with The Player, another story of amorality in Hollywood. The Coen brothers' film is much more cryptic; things are hinted at, like what's in Charlie's package (not a euphemism), what the significance of the beach picture is, and just what is the mysterious ooze. But nothing is concrete.

The acting is some of the best you will see in any film. John Tuturro makes Fink a nervous character who is not an innocent abroad, but is certainly in over his head. The two standout performances are Michael Lerner as Capitol Pictures head Jack Lipnick, and John Goodman as Charlie. Lerner talks at breakneck speed, with this veneer of largesse and openness, yet you are always aware that this could suddenly change if Fink says the wrong thing. Goodman is superb, saying more in his silences and listening looks than most actors do with many lines of dialogue. He could have been nominated along with Lerner for an acting award.

This is a great head-scratcher of a film, exposing Hollywood's seedy underbelly through mystery, much like Mulholland Dr. It defies genre, though there are trances of noir in its focus on the 'common man' against the machine of organisation, and horror, in the psychological implications of the The Earle hotel's portrayal. One of my favourite Coen Brothers' films.


  1. I think about this movie a lot. I saw it when it first came out at the Los Feliz theater in Los Angeles. That theater was soon after converted into a three-screen venue, but when I saw Barton Fink, it was still HUGE!

    I saw it during the day and there were only two or three people in the theater. Despite all that space and the lack of crowds, Barton Fink made me feel very claustrophobic, confined, the walls of that awful awful hotel room were closing in and I could hardly breathe at times. I almost left the theater. I think I stood up and walked around in the aisles for a few minutes before sitting down again.

    The only other time that happened to me in a theater was when The Bride was buried alive in Kill Bill, Volume 2, and that was in a packed theater for a midnight show the day it opened.

    (It also happened to me when I saw Repulsion, but I was watching it on cable in my crumbly Hollywood apartment.)

    1. I am surprised you think about it often: I think it requires thinking about, and even then you don't solve its mysteries!

      That's a really visceral reation to have! I have only have that happen while watching buried, though I certainly understand having it with Kill Bill Vol. 2.