Barton Fink is quintessential Coen Brother's, coming in just one year after “Miller's Crossing” the Brothers hit their stride and make their first perfect movie, only a prelude of what is to come in their impressive career. To me Barton Fink is the most ambitious, surreal, satirical, and overall delight the Coen Brother's have put out, every single time I watch this movie I piece a new part of the story together. I figure out something new, another subtle nuance is showed to me that I missed from previous views. This movie rewards you with multiple viewings, and like most Coen Brothers movies, it only gets better each time.
It's a simple story really, our protagonist Barton (John Turturro, “O Brother, Where Art Thou”) is a playwright who has a huge hit show in New York, is then brought over to LA by a big Hollywood executive to write a wrestling picture. Barton stays at The Earle, a beautifully grungy hotel, where his only company are the bell boy (Steve Buscemi, “Fargo”) and his elusive neighbor, Charlie (John Goodman, “Inside Llewyn Davis”) who sells insurance, without spoiling anything strange things start to happen surrounding Barton in a series of bizarre events. Coming from Miller's Crossing which focused on many characters, Barton Fink is much more stripped down, with only a few characters to focus on the story feel that much more intimate and can be fleshed out in a completely different way. A good chunk of the movie is spent in Barton's hotel room where he struggles with writers block, looking for motivation or distraction Charlie is usually there to give him a nip of whisky and some conversation. It's in these moments the characters flourish, led by the best performances I've seen by these two veteran actors.
The constant shifting of tone/genres is something the Coen Brothers have always done, and here in Barton Fink is where they really starting toying with that. It some cases it's a satire on Hollywood, the executives are big and over the top, oozing in narcissism and pompous canter, but when it's Barton in his hotel room this movie is a fever dream of subgenres, it's a drama filled with mystery and comedy, blended together with just a small slice of horror. The twists are abundant, and I won't even mention some characters as I don't wish to spoil anything about this movie. Although I will say this film did the "head in a box" trick far before David Fincher's 'Seven.'
As with any Coen Brother movie Barton Fink is swimming in symbolism and iconography, I could watch it five more times and still not catch every subtle detail that went into making this. From a surreal picture of a woman on an ocean, a violent combustion of flames, to a mosquito in LA, there's meaning in every detail. The film is filled with cryptic subtext that gives the viewers multiple interpretations, which is why Barton Fink begs for repeat viewings. The Coen's really start experimenting with their shots, even though there's only a few locations throughout, it's always engrossing, from long static mid shots, to dutch angles and crane shots, turning the Dungy hotel into a character all it's own. The set design is marvelous, the hotel has a decaying sense of morality that fits perfectly with grim aspects of the story, yet it's beautiful in it's own feverish way, it's no wonder this film won the prestigious Palm D'or award in 1991.
Barton Fink is a film with multiple interpretations, most people understand the big twist at the end, but there's so many layers to sink your teeth into, so much subtext and cryptic context that will linger in the viewers head long after the credits have rolled. That being said the overall message is just as relevant to today's film going audience as it back in '91, making choices is what it really boils down to, right versus wrong, greed versus peace, and of course good versus evil. Does Barton Fink make the right choice to write for Hollywood, is Barton right to make friends with a strange insurance salesman, should Barton have taken the offer to stay at the Ritz rather than The Earle? Only viewing this early masterpiece will tell the answers, and at under 2 hours the Coen Brothers prove time and time again, a fantastic story does not need a bloated runtime, everything they want to tell is there, it's lean and airtight, no time for frills and filler which is just one reason out of countless that make these two Brother's such legendary filmmakers.
Overall Barton Fink is my favorite Coen Brothers movie, which is saying a lot because they pretty much only make gold. It shows these two at their most ambitious and unrestrained, eager to make a mark in the place they so heavily criticize , and they do so with such confidence it's hard to believe this is just their fourth film. John Turturro gives his all time best as the anxious playwright looking for some sort of peace (also he has one of the best dance numbers in this), John Goodman is devilishly good as Charlie Meadows, the strange insurance salesman with a secret, and when the unsettling secrets start to come forward, strap in for one hell of a conclusion. The film is unpredictable, darkly humorous throughout and full of symbolism hiding in the open ready for viewers to catch with multiple views. Barton Fink is a showcase of incredible talent, one that should be viewed by all, I cannot recommend this movie enough.
I give Barton Fink 5 out of 5 stars.