Review by Gene
A couple of weeks ago all of us here took to the task of declaring our favorite directors. After consulting my collection and whittling the field down, I settled on the Coen Brothers. I’ve seen about half of their 16 films, so in an effort to remedy that I took to seeking out some of their earlier works. The first that caught my eye was Barton Fink. If you decide to give this a view yourself, be sure to bring along your imagination and a clear mind.
Upon first viewing I was sure I missed something. Some pivotal metaphor had gone right over my head. I was sure of it. I felt I needed to talk it out with someone who’s seen it, so after a good discussion with our friend Tyler Smith from More Than One Lesson, I felt completely sure there was no way I could be sure about any of it! It was actually a very good discussion, and despite that general sense of uncertainty I never felt frustrated with this film. Rather, I remain intrigued thinking about all the possible meaning hidden within it.
Barton Fink begins simply enough. Fink (John Turturro) is a New York playwright who found critical acclaim. To the extent that Hollywood, in the form of Capitol Pictures, came calling. Fink repeatedly expresses his desire to tell the stories of the “common man”. He’s hesitant to remove himself from access to their stories by going to Hollywood. Once there he’s sure to remain as detached as possible from the studio elite. He rents a room at The Earle hotel, deliberately separate from the glitz and glamour he could certainly afford. It is here we meet Charlie Meadows (John Goodman). And it is here where the story gets interesting.
John Goodman is so great in this film. He’s an actor that is good at bringing two extremes to a performance, but not always both at the same time. He can be calm and reserved (Monuments Men, Fallen) or he can be over the top loud and obnoxious (Big Lebowski, O’ Brother Where Art Thou). In Barton Fink, he brings both to the table while also serving as two representations of inner turmoil for Barton… I think.
Barton’s desire to write about the common man is stunted in large part by his own shortsightedness. Charlie is almost exactly the man who Barton is being asked to write about. He used to wrestle, he’s romantically challenged… and he also fulfills Barton’s dramatized view of the common man in that he feels a sense of duty to his fellow man, and accomplishes that feeling by selling insurance (read: peace of mind). The first encounter between Barton and Charlie is packed full with meaning for the rest of the film. Many of it I didn’t get until the second watch. My advice if you’re really trying to draw everything out is to keep an open ear for the most subtle of phrases, and an open eye for simple gestures that at the time seem routine. I assure you, you can probably find a hint in about every word or movement, especially during interactions between Barton and Charlie.
Rounding out the cast are Capitol Production executive producer Lack Lipnick (Michael Learner, who got an Oscar nomination for his performance here), famed author W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney) who is the object of Barton’s admiration, the producer assigned to Barton’s film Ben Geisler (Tony Shaloub), and the girlfriend of Mayhew, Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis), whom Barton takes a liking to. Most of these supporting roles serve to bring out elements of Barton, specifically his motivation and his struggles in writing this wrestling picture he’s been commissioned to create in a week’s time.
Barton Fink is a film that leans heavily on metaphor, and because of that it can become annoying at parts if you aren’t interested in digging into it. A lot has been written about how Barton Fink IS Ethan and Joel Coen. Like the Coen’s he’s Jewish, he enjoyed critical success with his fist play, he earned a shot at a major studio production, and he draws a blank when he needs to produce something great. Similar things happened to the Coen’s early on. It’s said that they wrote Fink when they hit a wall in writing Miller’s Crossing, which was their first shot at a major studio production after Blood Simple and Raising Arizona received heaps of praise from critics.
So if Barton is the Coen brothers and he represents the struggle and pressure they were feeling at the time, then it follows I think that Charlie is not only the hidden-in-plain-view story they want/need to tell, but also the embodiment of the heat they’re under to deliver something great. That heat by the way, is used metaphorically and literally throughout the film. In my mind this best explains a number of moments in this film that, as I said earlier, seem to clearly mean something deeper but I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
Another common interpretation is that Charlie represents the devil. I can certainly see that, and the burning hallway scene practically demands that. Another view is that Lipnick is the devil, especially considering his treatment of Barton in the end. But I’m not so sure. In fact, I don’t know if there is a clear devil-type character in this story. What I see is Barton feeling the pressure of success that he himself earned. That’s not to say he deserves the torment of writers block, much less the horror that follows and concludes in the film, but he’s exactly where his success brought him. In many ways, Fink is suffering from the simple fact of unintended consequences. He wanted to tell great stories about the common man, not subject himself to deadlines and a “Hollywoodized” reality.
Switching focus for a bit to bring this all home to our Christian perspective, I think that’s also something Christians can fall prey to. Unfortunately there are a lot of folks today that love to convince people that getting right with God will mean great success in life, the instant shedding of all our worries in this world, no troubles, perfect children, and triple interest in our savings account. Ask any Christian and you’ll find this isn’t the case. In many ways subjecting ourselves to Christ can bring on more difficulties, more trials and heavier burdens in this world. Not the greatest sales-pitch, is it? That’s fine. We’re not in it for success or admiration. Jesus encouraged his first disciples that, when he left them, they would be scattered and have tribulation.
Behold, an hour is coming, and has already come, for you to be scattered, each to his own home, and to leave Me alone; and yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me. These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.” -John 16:32, 33
The same comfort is echoed today for us. Whatever trials and sufferings we undergo, we can remember that Jesus has overcome all that, and will glorify us with him.
My Rating: 3.5/5
I have the sense that this is a film I will grow more fondly of as time passes, or with each additional viewing, so I’ll give this our 4-star icon to go with a 3.5 rating. It’s a lot to take it at once, but the more I think on it the more pleased I am with what it accomplished in layer after layer of metaphor. The cast is spectacular and there was a lot of work done on the decor of the set. Roles like this will make you continue to wonder how John Goodman has never been nominated for an Oscar. The story is on the surface a simple one, but shown with complex methods that could serve more to confuse viewers than to entertain.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this film!