The first three films made by the Coen Brothers are all great. Excellent, in fact. But Barton Fink is the first that really showed their genius; that they are two of the preeminent filmmakers of our time. Despite sweeping the Palme d’Or, Best Director and Best Actor awards at Cannes in 1991, it was a box office flop, grossing only $6 million against its $9 million budget (which is particularly ironic when you consider a major theme of the film is the superficial differences between works of high and low culture). Though audiences at the time may not have recognised it, 25 years on it is clear that Barton Fink is the foundation of the Coens’ claim to cinematic genius.
The film follows the titular Barton (John Turturro), young and idealistic wünderkind of the New York theatre scene, as he takes his first steps as a Hollywood screenwriter. At the behest of his agent, he’s trying to knock out a couple of quick and high-paying screenplays that would allow him to focus on the theatre work he sees as more worthy and substantial. After a meeting with Capitol Pictures boss Jack Lipnick, played by Michael Lerner in an Oscar-nominated turn, Barton checks in at the desolate Hotel Earle to begin writing a screenplay for the Wallace Beery wrestling picture he’s been assigned to. This is much easier said than done, however, as he struggles to put that ‘Barton Fink feeling’ that everybody is expecting of him down on the page. Aside from the weight of expectation, the strange new city and the sweltering heat, one of Barton’s distractions is (quite literally) warm and friendly insurance salesman Charlie Meadows, played by Coen staple John Goodman. At least, he says he’s an insurance salesman…
Written during a bout of writer’s block while working on Miller’s Crossing, the film rather fittingly revolves around the act of writing (although that isn’t all it’s about, particularly in the last act, during which it takes something of a left turn). Barton himself struggles with writer’s block throughout most of the film, finding it difficult to adapt to the new form. He in turn seeks the advice of film producer Ben Geisler, (a brilliantly manic Tony Shalhoub); renowned novelist and raging alcoholic W.P. Mayhew, played by William Faulkner lookalike John Mahoney (Faulkner’s own stint in Hollywood, specifically his script for a Wallace Beery wrestling picture titled Flesh, being an inspiration for the film), and finally Mayhew’s lover Audrey, the real creative force behind his recent works. In the end, however, it’s one of the common men Barton writes of who finally relights the creative fire under him – the original distraction takes the other distractions out of the picture.
There’s a loose, almost freeform feel to the film, a sense that the Coens were writing more for themselves than anything else and simply following where Barton’s struggle took them, exploring the ideas and feelings it conjured up rather than focus on a solid narrative. It’s this undefinable nature that puts Barton Fink a cut above the previous Coen films. Again, those first films are all great, but they can all more or less be summarised in a few words. Blood Simple is a hard-boiled thriller. Raising Arizona is a screwball crime caper. Miller’s Crossing is a Prohibition-era gangster flick.
Admittedly, all of those films are fairly unusual examples of their respective genres, each with a unique Coen-esque take on the style but still recognisably of a type. Barton Fink, however, is a more nebulous beast. It has aspects of film noir as well as those of a buddy movie; it’s undeniably comic, but at times is also a horror; it muses on the nature and differences of Hollywood, Broadway and literature and whether they create art or commodities; it’s Kafkaesque, it’s a Künstlerroman, and then it tops it all off with some supernatural elements.
Barton Fink’s unwillingness to be pigeonholed is what gives it its staying power. Like a lot of the more unusual Coen brothers films such as Fargo, The Man Who Wasn’t There, A Serious Man, Inside Llewyn Davis and Hail, Caesar! (which contains a little nod to Barton’s screenplay with mention of a “Wallace Beery Conference Room”), you turn the film over and over in your head long after the credits have rolled, and your understanding of it shifts and builds slightly with every rewatch. It may not necessarily be their best film, but it’s the first that truly showed the Coen brothers were more than just two accomplished filmmakers with their own quirky flavour – they’re bona fide masters of their craft. If you’re going to sneak into an R-rated movie anytime soon, make sure it’s Barton Fink.