Suggestively comparable to the leading protagonist of their film, Barton Fink was written in a mere three weeks by the Coen brothers as a break from their own creative difficulties whilst trying to complete the draft script of Miller’s Crossing (1990), a dense 1930s’ period gangster movie, rife with symbolism (‘What does the hat mean?’), framed in a classic cinematic style, and populated with outstanding performances.
Barton Fink is also a period film, this time set in the Hollywood of the early 1940s, and with its own cavalcade of potentially symbolic encounters (‘Who is the woman in the picture?’) and quality turns by regular Coen Brothers’ performers as John Turturro and John Goodman. However, despite the similarities in detail and cinematic quality in this respect, the progression of the central narrative in Barton Fink is more linear, which also offers the opportunity to add extra depth and weight to the eponymous central character.
The intricate feuding nature of the gangsters with their many points of intersection and aggravation are replaced by one man who is largely at war with himself. Whilst Barton’s self-doubts and aspirations are comparable to the prohibition hit-men, when Goodman’s Charlie Meadows portrays himself as “The Common Man” who is willing to show Fink ‘the life of the mind’, replete with vivid flaming hallways and shotgun blast alarm-clock, alerting him to the vibrant dramatic reality of his situation, Fink’s life and eventual script, denounced as a ‘fruity movie about suffering’ by the studio boss, is once more thrown into sharp contrast with the expectations of his character, as his solipsistic suffering fails to sufficiently engage with the reality within his (cinematic) world…
The full 800 word version of this review is published in Directory of World Cinema: American Independent 2, edited by John Berra, published by Intellect Books, 2013.