A renowned New York playwright is enticed to California to write for the movies and discovers the hellish truth of Hollywood.
Barton Fink is one of the most interesting films in the Coen Brothers collection, defying any standard genre, filled with subtext and littered with symbolism. The film introduces us to Barton Fink (John Turturro), an up and coming playwright in New York in 1941, who is drawn to Hollywood to start writing screenplays when he starts suffering from writer’s block. The story of the film is loosely inspired by the Coen’s real life experiences writing their previous effort ‘Miller’s Crossing’, and they actually completed ‘Barton Fink’ during a 3 week break before returning to complete ‘Miller’s Crossing’.
The story itself is fairly straightforward initially, but it’s brought to life by the superb characters that populate the story. Even the smallest role is memorable in one way or another, and this is a feature of most Coen Brother’s films that really draws you into their brand of storytelling. One slight criticism is that some of the acting did seem a little over the top which perhaps was part of the point (Tony Shalhoub and Michael Lerner in particular) to emphasise the characters in Hollywood at the time the film was set.
The best performances come from Turturro in the lead role, and it’s clear from how well he embodies the character that the role was written with him in mind, and from John Goodman as his neighbour at his hotel. Goodman’s ‘Charlie Meadows’ is a larger than life character who adds a bit of impetus to the scenes in the hotel, and interestingly he’s the only guest that we ever see. The hotel plays almost like a character in itself – it’s wonderfully eerie with the long corridors outside of his room adding to the impending sense of doom that we feel watching the film. In that sense, it’s reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’, which is a strong influence on the film and the hotel design in particular.
There’s always a sense that something’s not quite right with everything seeming a little off-kilter (from the line of shoes outside the rooms, but never any guests, and the rundown nature of the place with the walls literally sweating off the wallpaper). Out of all the Coen Brother’s films that I’ve seen, this is one of their most thought-provoking efforts, filled with symbolism and metaphors that demand repeat viewings and further reading. It’s not one of my favourites in their collection but Barton Fink is an excellent film, with memorable characters and it is well worth watching.
Directed By: Joel & Ethan Coen
Starring: John Turturro, Judy Davis, Michael Lerner, John Mahoney, Tony Shalhoub, Jon Polito, Steve Buscemi and John Goodman