Barton Fink full movie review - One of the Coens' blackest assaults on Hollywood
Barton Fink is another gem from the brothers Coen. Their range and talents knows no bounds. In this day and age of repetitive story lines and same old scenarios, a film headlined by Joel and Ethan Coen is a breath of fresh air.
Nethertheless, anyone familiar with the Coens' work will know that beneath their exquisitely stylised sets and impressive visual details is a strain of black, gallows humour that weaves its way like an unsettling tapestry. And Barton Fink is one of their most terrifying films to date. So be warned!
Set in the Hollywood of 1941, struggling playwright Barton Fink (John Turturro) has had huge success with a play he penned that he despises. Barton is a man who wants to write material that appeals to the common man. And when he receives an offer from a Hollywood film studio to write a script about a wrestling picture, he doesn't like the idea of "selling out", but the offer is too good to turn down.
When he arrives in Hollywood, he checks into one of the most bizarre hotels you could ever have the misfortune of being in, the Earle. This is not like any hotel I've ever seen. The lobby is dimly lit. The concierge (Steve Buscemi) emerges from a trapdoor in the floor. And there's an unsettling atmosphere that hangs over the place. Electric fans everywhere try vainly to offset the stifling heat. The hotel service bell has a chime that hangs in the air almost like an afterthought. And the corridors of the Earle seem to just stretch into infinity.
Trapped within the confines of his tiny room, Barton is a prisoner of his own imagination. He is struck with a severe case of writers block. There can be nothing more horrifying to a writer than a blank page. And that endless image of a blank page slowly starts to drive Barton mad. A situation not helped by the bizarre dimensions of the Earle, and the people he turns to for help who only add to his growing trauma.
After watching Barton Fink, you may find yourself asking what this film is about? One thing that struck me is how similar it seems to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. The Coen brothers are known fans of Kubrick's work, but I have to say, Barton Fink is a much better film than the one the Coens' idol came up with.
The Shining had a potentially promising setup that unfortunately overbalanced into broad senseless violence, as well as the fact it was undone by Jack Nicholson's mugging, and supported by additional characters we couldn't care much about.
But Barton Fink shows how the story could and should have been told. The Earle is quite an extraordinary setpiece, and just as impressive as anything Kubrick did with the Overlook. The Coens' were clearly being handed creative freedom on bigger and bigger budgets, something that would reach its zenith with their following film, The Hudsucker Proxy.
I love everything about the Earle, and how its designed to do everything within its power to unsettle and unhinge Barton's mind. There are lots of wonderful little details that intensify the frightening nature of the hotel. I like the way whenever you open or close a door at the Earle there's an unsettling 'whoosh' sound. It never fails to make me jump. Or the wallpaper that peels. Its an eerie sight because it does it so slowly. And the muffled sounds of fellow boarders who are only heard. Never seen.
But it wouldn't be half as good without great performers. And as usual the Coens' have assembled another terrific ensemble cast. John Turturro can seem an unlikable person at times as Barton, but in my last viewing he seemed much more sympathetic. He's a person who had one idea in his life that paid off, and now he's got nothing left. His creativity is spent. And the hotel seems determined to strip him of his humanity too. And its wrenching to watch.
But the one performance that stands out is the always excellent John Goodman as Charlie Meadows, the boarder next door. I was impressed with the way the film introduces his character. Barton complains to the concierge of the racket next door. We hear the sound of a muffled telephone ringing. Muffled talking. The camera remains fixed on the wall the sound is coming from. Footsteps. A door opens. This is all heard remember. Not seen. Then the camera moves slowly towards Barton's door. And finally someone knocks, and it sounds booming. The door opens to reveal Charlie's imposing frame.
Whenever the Coens' cast John Goodman, they always make sure to cast him against type. Instead of the good hearted gentle giant he usually plays, in their films he's always a whacked out weirdo. And so it is here. At first Charlie seems pleasant and sympathetic to Barton's problems, but their friendship turns sour when Charlie is not all that he seems. Those final moments in a burning corridor with Charlie blowing people away with a shotgun screaming at the top of his lungs is one of the most terrifying scenes to ever emerge in a Coen film.
Barton Fink is also a scathing satire on the Hollywood film industry. The Coens' portray prolific authors as over the hill alcoholics, or media moguls as jaded, bottom of the barrel swindlers. I wonder if this mirrors the Coens' actual sentiments towards the industry they work for.
Although I'm a big fan of the Coen brothers and I think Barton Fink is a classic, its a film of theirs I enjoy in small doses. It doesn't quite have the addictive appeal of Fargo or O Brother, Where Art Thou? It's a film that always leaves me physically drained. Just like poor Barton. But then, that may have been the Coens' intent. And the overall point of the film.