Expecting Great Things: The Coen Brothers' Barton Fink (1991)
“And do me a favor, Fink: throw it hard.”
My personal favorite film by the Coens shall always be Miller’s Crossing. Their most vital and most important motion picture, however, to me shall always be the disturbing and haunting Barton Fink. Fink is a film that takes the life and mind of a writer and makes it run along the Devil himself. Can writing an original piece actually be that hard? The Coens are here to remind you for all eternity that the answer is a big “yes” shouted in your face like an unhinged drill instructor who is taking his bad life out on you.
Barton is a damn fine writer. A playwright who makes the papers with rave reviews. He writes for the “common man” truly believing in his art and his impact on this seemingly talentless world. His popularity opens the door to Hollywood after Capitol Pictures invites him to write a screenplay for an upcoming film. Pretty much from here things begin to unravel for Fink at an accelerated rate. He is asked to write a script for a Wrestling film, something completely out of his wheelhouse and he is instantly crippled with writer's block. He seeks the aid of one of his literary heroes only to find him to be a total souse. His hotel neighbor is a loud boisterous man who distracts Fink at always the most inopportune time. Oh, and the wallpaper in his room is peeling away like the layers of his sanity. Barton Fink is a film that travels to scary places and is genius enough to work if you take it literally or metaphorically. It is rich with detail and much like any other Coen work the language is surgical. No line of dialogue is filler nor is any physical gesture for all actors present on the screen wasted. A film about writer’s block written by men who had writer’s block while trying to tackle Miller’s Crossing, this monster of expression is a live look at one of the deadliest monsters to ever exist: the creativity killing kind.
John Goodman when linked with the Coens is a vital relationship. Art is subjective, but I would argue Charlie Meadows is hands down the greatest performance Goodman ever gave the Coen brothers. He represents so many things - delivering a virtuoso performance that will always be admired decades removed. He charms you but he is definitely off in some way. There is an attraction to the mysterious danger he projects. His performance throughout is a marvel but when we reach the third act it becomes timeless, the stuff of legend. His scream will rattle in your mind forever and his actions will achieve the same effect. This is a film loaded with phenomenal performances but John deserved his own paragraph so here we are.
To put it bluntly: Barton Fink truly gets under my skin and scares me more than any horror film. It perfectly illustrates the worries and insecurities one may have when picking up a pen to write (or in Barton’s and in our case, type) an original piece. Even if you are talented, many of the same demons pop up on your shoulder threatening to eat you alive. How do I even start this? What if nobody reads this? So and so writes way better than me, why should I try? I’ve been given a golden opportunity and I may squander it because I can’t get started. I may be a hack.
These demons that threaten to burn your ultimate residence, your mind, into a pile of ashes will never subside. They haunt us all and can never be tamed. Barton Fink’s greatest achievement is reminding writers across all fields that a John Goodman like force is out there and even if you find aide in the form of love or protection, he’ll take heads and raze your palace to rubble. Buckle up my dear scribes, writing is Hell and you must be out of your damn mind to try.