The Coen Brothers’ BARTON FINK (1991)

Notable Festivals:  Cannes (Palm d’Or, Best Director, Best Actor)

As mentioned before, the Coen Brothers hit something of a mental block while writing MILLER’S CROSSING, so they stepped away from it and traveled to New York and for 3 weeks, where they hammered out a new story intended as a vehicle for their MILLER’S CROSSING star John Turturro. They drew from a wide variety of references­­ Preston Sturge’s SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS, Roman Polanski’s REPULSION and THE TENANT, and Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING, in addition to numerous other literary influences and traditions­­ to create a thoroughly post­modern tale about Barton Fink, a New York playwright who moves to Hollywood to write for the movies on the eve of America’s entry into World War 2. Initially intended as something of a diversionary project, the Coens’ fourth feature, BARTON FINK, taps into a primal aspect of the writer’s psyche. Most writers wants to create lasting, important works that inspire their audience, but these ambitions are usually incongruous with the commercial aspects of the profession. Hollywood has a long history of appropriating celebrated playwrights for the cinematic medium, and an even longer laundry list of brilliant ideas that were trampled over by populistic commercial schemes hatched by those who couldn’t write their way out of a paper bag. BARTON FINK covers this external aspect of the profession quite comprehensively, but it also spends a considerable amount of time exploring the writer’s internal conflict: the debilitating uncertainty about whether the work at hand is something important, or merely trash, when oftentimes the difference between the two is completely indistinguishable. By channeling these frustrations and unloading them onto their hapless, eponymous protagonist, the Coens managed to create one of the most inspired and celebrated works of their entire career.

Set in Hollywood shortly before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, BARTON FINK serves as one of the earliest showcases for actor John Turturro as a leading man, and he pours his heart and soul into his performance as the titular Jewish playwright with coke bottle glasses and the battiest hairdo this side of ERASERHEAD. The character, as well as the central conceit of the story, is loosely based on New York playwright Clifford Odets, who worked to promote social issues and the Stanislavski method of performance through his work with the Group Theatre during the 1930’s. When his audience began to migrate towards escapist fare, Odets also moved to Los Angeles and became a working screenwriter. The Coens applied this basic template to their own ambitious protagonist, tailoring it specifically to Turturro’s idiosyncratic strengths as a performer and isolating him within the mysterious labyrinth of the fictional Hotel Earle.

BARTON FINK went before cameras shortly after wrapping on MILLER’S CROSSING, shooting for 8 weeks on a budget of $9 million dollars. Likely owing to how fast the production of BARTON FINK ramped up, the Coens pull from their roster of stock actors more heavily than usual. Such Coen company regulars as John Goodman, Jon Polito, and Steve Buscemi are all heavily featured throughout the film.

As the Hotel Earle’s concierge, bellhop and seemingly­only employee Chet, Buscemi plays up his natural weirdness to memorably inquisitive effect. Polito pulls a 180­degree reversal from his MILLER’S CROSSINGcharacter by assuming a quiet, bookish mentality in his performance as the studio lackey, Lou Breeze. Goodman outright steals the show as Charlie Meadows, a perpetually­sweaty insurance salesman with a small brain and a big heart. Always armed with a cheap colloquialism, Meadows is an endearing character who initiates a friendship with Fink by sheer virtue of being the only other visible inhabitant of the hotel. He’s given a chance to shine in the film’s show­stopping climax, an opportunity he relishes with a psychopathic fury and glee.

Even the first­time cast members already seem to have that inimitable Coen company touch. John Mahoney, as Fink’s literary idol WP Mayhew, channels the alcoholic ghost of William Faulkner. His secretary and secret ghostwriter, Audrey Taylor, is played by Judy Davis with a dry glamor that’s reminiscent of Katharine Hepburn. Tony Shalhoub turns in a memorable performance as Ben Geisler, a producer with a rapier wit and a rapid­fire verbosity. Finally, there’s Michael Lerner, that venerable character actor of corrupt bureaucrat types. He absolutely devours the scenery as Jack Lipnick, a greedy Hollywood titan and the de­facto owner of Fink’s soul. He’s cut from the sage cloth as other larger­than­life producers like Albert Broccoli or David O. Selznick, which makes him a perfect foil to Barton’s artistic integrity.

Over the course of their career, one of the Coens’ most valuable collaborators has been cinematographer RogerDeakins. BARTONFINKmarkstheirfirsttimeworkingtogether,anditbecomesquicklyapparent that this is a match made in heaven. Deakins, who filled the role after Barry Sonnenfeld left to pursue a directing career of his own, crafts a darkly handsome 35mm film image highly suited for both the 1940’s time period and the Coens’ unique visual sensibilities. The 1.66:1 canvas deals in the same tobacco-­toned color palette and classical camera moves as MILLER’S CROSSING, albeit with a heavily impressionistic panache that echoes Fink’s interior state and lends the film a sweaty, dreamlike quality. The keys of Fink’s typewriter strike paper like deafening clashes of thunder. The chaos of a rowdy brawl at a USO party manifests in woozy, canted-­angle slow motion. The creeping one­-point perspective compositions in the Art Deco-­styled Hotel Earle conjure haunting memories of THE SHINING’s Overlook Hotel. All these expressionistic moments, and more, are blended together into a feverish lather by returning composer Carter Burwell, and the Coens themselves under their editing pseudonym Roderick Jaynes­­ an alter­-ego whose existence owes to guild regulations.

One of the Coens’ distinct directorial talents is the ability to imbue a relatively simple story with multiple layers of subtle thematic context. BARTON FINKhas an uneasy feeling that courses underneath the plot, like something crawling under your skin or (more aptly), wallpaper sweating off the walls– entire sheets at a time. The Coens leave the true meaning of the plot’s developments just ambiguous enough so as to stoke all kinds of fan theories about what’s actually going on, the chief interpretation being Fink’s contract with Hollywood serving as a metaphorical deal with the devil, and the hotel in which he languishes in limbo being a gateway to Hell itself. Artifacts of the Hotel Earle’s residents (like their shoes) are seen, but we never actually glimpse the residents themselves– we only hear their mysterious individual dramas between the walls. Audrey Taylor’s mysterious murder halfway through the film promptly veers the story into a waking nightmare, culminating in Goodman emerging as Lucifer himself amidst the raging inferno that has engulfed the Hotel Earle. It’s almost as if the Coens knew how thoroughly audiences and critics would dissect their vision, peppering in deliberate images that point in that direction without bearing any particular relevance to the plot, like Charlie Meadows’ mysterious box that may or may not contain a severed head, numerous references to the Bible, or the camera traveling down the drain of a bathroom sink during a sex scene.

BARTON FINK continues to build out the particular character of the Coens’ self­contained universe by rearranging recurring ideas and themes within the context of Hollywood’s Golden Age. The narrative framework of an east coast playwright transplanted to California echoes the outsider’s perspective the Coens bring to their sense of storytelling. Like so many Coen protagonists, Barton Fink is a man at odds against his environment, railing against a system that encourages exploitation, mediocrity and profit over artistic integrity­­ even as his own writer’s block pits his productivity against his desire to create. Up until this point, the Coens had fashioned their protagonists in the mold of the common man, but BARTON FINK flips the script on the formula by making the titular character an entrenched member of the high society intelligentsia who lionizes himself as a warrior for the middle class. He’s so intent on promoting middle class values, even, that he frequently talks over the very people whose plight he romanticizes, ignoring the very real human stories they have to share. He commodifies their hardships in a misguided campaign to stroke his own ego, just as his own talents are commodified by the head of Capitol Pictures in a vain attempt to gain prestige. It should also be noted that the Capitol Pictures depicted in BARTON FINK is the same studio seen in HAIL, CAESAR! (2016), further solidifying the interconnectivity of the Coen­verse.


As a film that started life as a simple diversionary project, BARTON FINK exceeded nearly every expectation to become the Coens’ first true masterpiece. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the tastes of mainstream audiences, the film was a financial bomb­­ but what it lacked in box office receipts it more than made up for in critical plaudits. BARTON FINK holds the esteemed distinction as the only film to win the top three awards at the Cannes Film Festival: Best Actor, Best Director, and the Palm d’Or. It also went on gain three Oscar nominations: Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, and a Best Supporting Actor nod for Michael Lerner. The earliest instance of the Coens’ artistic aesthetic coalescing into something truly identifiable as their own, BARTON FINK has grown in appreciation over the years to become not just a cornerstone of the brothers’ filmography, but an indispensable cinematic treasure in its own right.


BARTON FINK is currently available as a high definition stream on Netflix (albeit in a cropped, pan-and-scan transfer), as well as standard definition DVD from Twentieth Century Fox.