Review: Barton Fink (1991)

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen


imageIt is easy to forget, in the post-No Country For Old Men haze, that there was a time when the Coen brothers weren’t the toast of the Academy. They were once a pair of outsiders looking in; they were armed with a surrealist eye, a quick wit and a healthy disdain for the Hollywood process. That disdain was best expressed in their 1991 Palme d’Or winner Barton Fink, a wonderful curio which looks and feels like a kitschy little flick before dovetailing into unexpectedly dark terrain.

The Coen’s cynicism is embodied in the idealist pile of neuroses that is the character of Barton Fink (John Tuturro), a playwright who is the hottest thing on the NY stage scene. Fink seeks to create a ‘theatre of the proletariat’, but that idealism is about to be swamped by an offer from a Hollywood studio to write a wrestling picture. Fink is a substitute for the Coens, as evidenced by his constant worry and the fact that (refreshingly) he does not allow himself to be corrupted by Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), the over-enthusiastic head of Capitol Pictures, an amalgam/pastiche of Selznick and Weinstein. The Coens doubtlessly had a lot of experiences to infuse in the character of Fink, and Tuturro makes for a likeably worried mensch. He’s surrounded by an esoteric ensemble, including Lerner (energetic), John Goodman (perky), Judy Davis (rigid) and John Mahoney (drunk).

Events barrel along until about the halfway point, when Barton Fink takes an eerie and bloody turn. As the tale of the everyman writer turns into a murder mystery, the events become more compelling and bizarre. The Coens have created the epitome of the writer in Fink, a bemused observer of events to be potentially filtered into art. In this example, he’s just getting a little too close to the action. The action really comes in this darker second half, meaning the first half of the film is a little too slow-burn, but it allows us time to wallow in the beautiful version of 1940s LA the Coens present. Barton’s hotel is a vaguely creepy art deco nightmare, whilst DP Roger Deakins shines the California sunshine constantly and brightly.

Barton Fink refuses to conform; it starts happily, slowly and easy to digest. Then, once the viewer is settled, it morphs into darkness and true cynicism. Expect no easy answers, no compromises and no lack of narrative and thematic meat to chew on. Expect the Coens at their most Coen-esque.


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