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(Credit: Coen Brothers)


'Barton Fink' at 30: The Coen brothers' surreal enigma


By the time the Coen brothers had gotten round to making the Palme d’Or-winning Barton Fink in 1991, they had already released the crime drama Blood Simple, genre oddball Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing, a cauldron of comedy and melodrama with a sprinkling of political satire. The familial duo was not (and have never been) tied to the constraints of genre, with their following film, Barton Fink becoming one of their most creatively eclectic films to date, combining elements of comedy, horror, noir and coming-of-age drama to create an innovative surreal experience. 

Set in 1941, John Turturro plays an intellectual New York playwright called Barton Fink, sporting a puffy hairstyle and dainty round-rimmed glasses, who accepts a glowing invitation for a job role writing movie scripts in Los Angeles. Arriving in the supposed heaven of Hollywood, Turturro’s Fink settles into the cheap Hotel Earle, a tired room decorated only with a small painting of a woman on a beach.

Tasked with writing a script for a B-movie about wrestling, Fink experiences a rather bizarre case of writer’s block wherein he becomes distracted by increasingly surreal situations. 

Describing the hotel as a “ghost ship floating adrift, where you notice signs of the presence of other passengers, without ever laying eyes on any”, by the Coen brothers in a conversation with Positif in 1991. Fink’s surroundings are drab, dull and stagnant, a good illustration for the state of his own writer’s block, with the hotel itself drawing stunning similarities to The Shining’s Overlook Hotel, speaking to the surreal horror of the reality of the character. Colliding modern filmmaking with classic Hollywood technique, the Coen brothers manage to create an enigmatic film with evocations of 1930s cinema, captured with contemporary cinematography. 

Spiralling into a surreal cranial voyage, Barton Fink agonises with creative panic, letting his subconscious imagination bounce in liberated joy, illustrated by bizarre fantasies and absorbing dream sequences. With several theories as to the genuine mental reality of the central character, many have suggested that much of the film in fact takes place in a separate imagined fantasy in Fink’s mind.

Moreso, however, it was the Coen’s intention to simply place the spectator within the fractured mind of the protagonist himself, noting in the same conversation recorded in Postif, “we wanted the spectator to share in the interior life of Barton Fink as well as his point of view”. Continuing, the directors add, “It would have been incongruous for Barton Fink to wake up at the end of the film and for us to suggest thereby that he actually inhabited a reality greater than what is depicted in the film. In any case, it is always artificial to talk about “reality” in regard to a fictional character”. 

Acknowledging several filmic influences for the film, including Roman Polanski’s Repulsion, Cul-de-Sac and The Tenant, the Coen brothers wished to utilise a similar mood of psychological surrealism that would form a mental instability for their lead character. It all leads to a twisted ball of complex cinema that entwines several genre styles whilst addressing a frenzy of complex topics including the difference between theatre and cinema, as well as the painstaking creative process of scriptwriting. 

Imbuing this into a tale laced with surrealism and a preoccupation with the concepts of fascism and religion and you get one of the Coen brothers most narratively complex films, a fever dream plucked from the eccentric coupled minds of two filmmaking masters. 

'Barton Fink' - Joel and Ethan Coen