Barton Fink came from writer’s block experienced by the Coen Brothers while they were working on the screenplay for Miller’s Crossing, and it shows. Chronicling a week or two in the troubled life of 1940s playwright turned screenwriter Barton Fink, it’s easy for any writer to empathise with his (and the Coens’) struggle to create something, to beat the blank page. At least up to a point.
Hollywood may be an all-consuming mistress but it becomes clear that Barton had his problems to begin with. He’s a man who never really seems happy with where he is or whom he’s talking to. Even when he meets his idol, he’s calling him a drunkard within minutes. It’s a mark of how good the film is that this only really occurs to the viewer on a second viewing, and that the film can still be appreciated without it. There are so many elements of this film worth paying attention to: it’s beautifully shot, for one thing; Roger Deakins did good work here. John Goodman also showed why the Coen brothers have kept using him, as he is fantastic as the essence of the everyman that Fink claims to want to express in his work (but never seems to actually listen to).
Considering the decent body of work the brothers have built up over the years, it’s only by the sheer passage of time that Barton Fink is now in the middle, quality-wise. It doesn’t quite have the charm of O Brother, Where Art Thou? or the timeless wisdom and humour of The Big Lebowski. But there are lots of touches of hilarious dark comedy throughout, and like all of the Coens’ output, it’s a film worth coming back to. In fact, it’s almost needed; you miss so much on the first go round. Having produced a film like this more than 20 years ago, it’s easy to see why the Coens became the industry giants they are today.
BARTON FINK (1991) / CERT: 15 / DIRECTORS & SCREENPLAY: JOEL & ETHAN COHEN / STARRING: JOHN TURTURRO, JOHN GOODMAN, MICHAEL LERNER, JUDY DAVIS, TONY SHALHOUB / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW