The Coen Project Part 4: Barton Fink

As I mentioned briefly in my last post, Joel and Ethan went to New York City for a three-week break in the middle of writing Miller’s Crossing, which they were struggling to complete. While there, they wrote the script for what would become their fourth feature, Barton Fink. While the film stood on its own when I first watched it a few years ago, putting it in the context of the time and place of its writing unlocked meaning that I didn’t pick up on before. Although set in 40’s Hollywood, Barton Fink is a cautionary tale that the Coens are telling themselves, a revenge story in which the titular New York writer is punished for his pretension. It’s as if the Coens needed to take a step back and think about who they were and what their goals were as writers, resulting in the most personal of all their films that I’ve seen thus far.

After his first Broadway play is a critical and financial success, Barton Fink (John Turturro) is given the opportunity to head west and write movies for Capitol Pictures (the fictional studio that would eventually make a comeback in 2016’s Hail Caesar). Barton laments that going to Hollywood would mean abandoning his “new, living theater, of and about the common man,” not considering the possibility that common men could frequent movie theaters. He goes anyway, and ensconces himself in the run-down and vaguely unsettling Hotel Earle. Assigned by the fast and loud talking Capitol Pictures boss Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner) to write a “wrestling picture,” Barton posts up at his typewriter and is unable to write a single word. 

It’s difficult to discuss this movie in any depth without giving away a significant plot reveal, so if you haven’t yet seen it and are planning to, I’d bail out now.

The Coens wrote the role of Barton Fink specifically for John Turturro, who they were working with on Miller’s Crossing. Turturro masterfully plays a man who is so obsessed with what he thinks he has to say as a writer that he is blind to his own delusions, toeing the line between Barton’s naive sincerity and his abrasive self-importance. Opposite him is John Goodman as Charlie Meadowes, the “common man” that Barton claims to empathize with so deeply. He has plenty of his own stories, but Barton isn’t interested in hearing them. When Charlie turns out to be very uncommon indeed, Barton pays the price for his pomposity.


“I could tell you some stories” 

Goodman’s performance is even more remarkable than Turturro’s: he has the uncanny ability to be simultaneously charming and sinister, drawing us in with his charisma even as we know something isn’t right with him. Even though on paper he ends up being the bad guy, I can never fully turn against him as a character. He’s not terrorizing Barton for no reason, he’s teaching him a lesson that ultimately catalyzes his change as a person and, we can surmise, as a writer. 

Barton Fink is the first out of three Coen Films that are set in Los Angeles, but I don’t think of it as an LA movie. The version of LA in the film is heavily (and purposefully) filtered through Barton’s own anti-Hollywood, east-coast centric perspective. Barton refuses to experience the city on its own terms until the final sequence where he sits on the beach in the aftermath of all that’s happened to him. The symbolism of the young woman aside, I read this scene as the moment Barton becomes an Angelino.

Stray Observations:

  • I didn’t even get into the character of W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney), the novelist-turned-screenwriter who disillusions Barton with his alcoholism and nonchalant attitude towards his craft. He’s based on William Faulkner, who’s real-life first Hollywood writing gig was a wresting picture called Flesh.
  • How great is Steve Buscemi as Chet (Chet!), the weirdly pedantic and friendly hotel guy?
  • Although it didn’t even make back its budget at the box office, Barton Fink pulled off a rare hat trick at the Cannes Film Festival, nabbing the Palm d’Or as well as Best Director and Best Actor. This caused the Cannes critics to enact the rule that any one movie could only win two out of the three.