I’ve been on a bit of a Coen Brothers kick recently. My wife and I watched No Country for Old Men on a snow day we had a few weeks ago, and after finally watching Inside Llewyn Davis over the weekend, we decided we had better go ahead and binge watch the rest of their films. Last night we had to privilege of watching Barton Fink, which is by far one of the oddest movies I’ve ever seen.
The film starts off in 1941 with our titular character, Barton Fink, at the end of his play in New York. The play is an overwhelming hit. Everybody Barton interacts with loves the play and even the reviews in the news paper believe Barton’s play to be a hit. The only person unenthusiastic about the play is Barton himself who talks a lot about knowing the play was bad in his gut. Barton is then offered a job to work in Hollywood writing screenplays.
In Hollywood, Barton chooses to stay in a crappy, unknown hotel compared to some of the ritzy “Hollywood” hotels. Its here that Barton tries to write his screenplay and experiences writers block. Along the way, he meets a variety of odd characters as he tries to overcome his writers block and find his way in the Hollywood machine.
How do you describe a movie like Barton Fink? I had heard someone describe it as “the Coen Brothers meets The Shining,” which is not quite how I’d describe it. Even though over half of the movie takes place in a hotel, I wouldn’t put it in the horror movie genre. It’s more like the Coen Brothers tried to make a David Lynch movie; its surreal. From the second Barton steps into the Earle hotel, it almost feels like he’s stepped out of reality and into the Hollywood Tower Hotel from the Disney Tower of Terror ride. I would not have been surprised if there had been a scene in this movie where the elevator operator said, “Going down,” and then the elevator started to plummet at deadly speeds in some kind of twisted dream sequence. As the story progresses and we watch Barton battle his writers block, the hotel itself almost becomes a living breathing character on the screen.
Next to O, Brother Where Art Thou? this movie showcases how good John Turturro can be, and it might be the best movie he has been in. Seriously, try to name one other movie he has been in besides O, Brother Where Art Thou? or Transformers. Next to John Turturro, we have John Goodman in one of the weirdest roles I think I’ve seen him in. A majority of the story unfolds between these two characters even if they only interact in the hotel and the only action between the two is simple conversation. We learn a lot about what goes on in Barton’s head and we learn a lot about how he sees others.
In spite of the praise Barton receives for his work, we continuously see his life get worse. First he experiences writers block while writing a screenplay he doesn’t understand or care about. The hotel he decides to stay in is crappy. He meets one of his idols and learns he is virtually a sham. The woman he meets is killed. He discovers there is a murderer in his hotel. In the end, when he overcomes his writers block, the studio executives hate his work and even though they hate it, Barton is still under contract with the studio to work for them for an undetermined amount of time while nothing he writes will ever be made.
Seeing all the bad happen to Barton leads me to think that the hotel in the movie is representative of Purgatory. Purgatory being the place that Catholics believe a person goes to when he dies to face trials that will ultimately determine if an individual will go to heaven or hell. Anytime Barton tries to write in his hotel room he experiences some kind of trial or distraction from his writing. First John Goodman’s character, Charlie Meadows, is yelling in the room next door. Then Charlie starts a conversation with Barton, which later become welcome distractions. The wall paper starts to peel. Detectives come to ask Barton about the murderer staying in the hotel. On top of this, Barton’s own ego (which is what put Barton in the hotel in the first place) prevents him from writing the simple B-movie that the studio wants in favor of a deeper character study he wants to write. These are only to name a few. The entire time Barton is in the hotel room, there is a picture of a woman in a bikini sitting on the beach looking off into the distance. This picture represents the heaven that Barton desires. He knows that once he has worked hard enough and his screenplay is made into a movie, he can have that relaxation and satisfaction of knowing he was successful.
In the end, the murderer in the hotel murders the woman who comes to sleep with Barton and sets the hotel on fire. Throughout the movie, the Coens slide in subtle clues to indicate how hot the inside of the hotel is. This fire is the natural climax of the heat (even if it is set by the murderer). Barton must then face a literal trial by fire as he is confronted by the murderer and his own hubris. He manages to save his screenplay and we are left to think Barton has experienced change.
Sadly, this change comes too late. In the end the studio executives hate his screenplay and essentially force him into a form of slavery where he is forced to write screenplays for the studio that will never get made into movies. The movie ends with Barton on the beach and experiencing the painting from the hotel room. Barton has in a way entered his heaven, but in reality it is only his hell.
So that’s all I have to say about that. If you haven’t seen the movie, I would highly recommend it. If you have seen it, then stop reading this and go watch it again.
Let me know what you think, ask some questions, or even suggest movies or comics for me to review in the future in the comments!