Barton Fink (1991) is an enigmatic film if ever there was one. It was born out of the Coen brothers’ purgatory stage, during which they were rapidly becoming experienced filmmakers, but had not yet perfected their unique brand. It bombed at the box-office but won Best Director, Best Actor and the Palme D’or at the Cannes Film Festival. It’s set in the 40s, but it looks like a baroque painting. Even at this stage, I really don’t know what to make of it.
This movie is determined to confuse us. It makes a lot of bold statements, but it doesn’t capitalize on any of them. It never makes a distinction between what’s real and what’s not, and the ending resolves absolutely none of the plot. It defies genre classification to the point that “character study” is probably the only accurate label that can be applied. The plot is deliberately unpredictable and fragmented. You understand everything that happens, but it’s weird, man.
The movie also gets really visceral at times, particularly inside the hotel where we can almost feel the humidity. It’s sticky, doesn’t smell good, and the heat is unbearable. You can really imagine what it must be like for Barton to not only live in a place like this, but to work there too. It’s no wonder he has writer’s block. He’s living in the attic of Hell.
The film actually follows a pretty standard formula for a story about writer’s block, but within this framework it decides to go totally bananas. The character is assigned a routine piece of writing and he can’t think of anything so he bluffs his way past deadlines while staring at an empty typewriter. In the midst of all this, he sleeps with his idol’s wife, gets his feet kissed by an executive and befriends his serial killer neighbor. The Coen brothers have set out to make something original, and they have succeeded. The one thing you can say for sure about this movie is that it’s not a cliché.
3 out of 5 Stars