I don’t know why I avoided watching Barton Fink (1991) for as long as I did. It doesn’t make sense, because I am a huge admirer of the Coen Brothers’ work. Maybe, it cut too close to the bone. After all, it is about a scribe that is struggling with the ultimate impediment for anyone who makes a living spinning yarns, the dreaded “WRITER’S BLOCK.” While IMDb categorizes it as a “Comedy, Drama, Thriller” (which it most assuredly is), I prefer to think of it as a psychological horror film. Writer/Director Joel Coen was an assistant film editor on Sam Raimi’s original Evil Dead (1981) and you can clearly see that Barton is in the same vein as the ill-fated weekend at a remote cabin movie. There are no Deadites running amuck, but demons are plentiful in this tale—albeit the kind that live inside your head.
Barton Fink is set in the 1930’s, the beginning of the “Golden Age” of Hollywood. Our young wordsmith is a successful New York playwright. Although he is an intellectual and hasn’t done a lick of manual labor in his life, he fancies himself to be the voice of the “common man.” He has a dream that he will create a form of theater where it will be for the people and by the people. Fresh off a successful Broadway run, Fink gets the call that every writer dreams of. Well, not EVERY writer, but Tinseltown is beckoning and wants to pay Barton handsomely for his services. Despite his misgivings, he packs his bags and heads for Los Angeles.
The Coen Brothers’ character is based on Clifford Odets, who wrote successful plays about the working class such as Awake and Sing! (1935), Waiting for Lefty (1935) and Golden Boy (1937). Odets went to the west coast and became a successful screenwriter with None but the Lonely Heart (1944) and the brilliantly dark look at the Hollywood public relations machine, Sweet Smell of Success (1957). Unfortunately, he went through his own version of hell after he named names during his testimony for the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he also admitted to being a member of the Communist Party. He was shunned by his colleagues in New York and in Los Angeles. He died in 1963 of stomach cancer.
Welcome to Your Own Private Hell
Barton on the other hand, didn’t share Odets’ successes. From the moment he arrives in the City of Angels, you can tell his life is going to be turned upside down. When he enters the Hotel Earle, the motto of which is, “A day or a lifetime,” you know things are not going to work out for the earnest creative. The Hotel Earle is dark, crowded with furniture and every Art Deco doodad from floor to ceiling. While waiting to be checked in, Fink is greeted by Chet the Bellhop (Steve Buscemi) who appears from a trap door in the floor behind the front desk. While he is polite and courteous, you can’t help but feel like he might possibly be a demon—albeit a friendly one.
Of course, where is Fink’s room located? The sixth floor, and the hits are just going to keep coming because we all know that “6” is part of the number of the Beast. After looking at the inside of his new home, we know that he is in for psychological torment. Wallpaper is peeling and coming off the walls due to the oppressive heat. Mosquitoes are plentiful and draw blood whenever they can. You can’t help but notice that the dilapidated interior represents the state of Barton’s fragile mind. The only thing that seems to soothe him is the picture above his desk of a beautiful girl sitting by the ocean.
When he sets his Underwood typewriter on the desk and sits down to begin work, the words aren’t flowing. This is reminiscent of another scribe who experienced a block: Mr. Jack Torrance, who also stayed in a hotel haunted by a plethora of ghosts. With the noblest of intentions, Fink is doing his best to generate some words onto the blank white page, but he gets distracted when he hears a booming voice through his wall laughing and crying. Finally, he decides to put an end to the annoyance by complaining to Chet. In turn, Chet rings the occupant in the next room and before you know it, someone is pounding on Barton’s door.
We meet his neighbor: a large, affable gent named Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), an insurance salesman that sells people “peace of mind.” Although there is a huge smile on his face, you can’t quite shake the feeling that he just may be the devil in disguise. The two share a drink, Charlie apologizes, and Barton is left to his thoughts.
Hollywood: Killer of Dreams
As if our youthful scribe doesn’t have enough problems, now he has to face his employer, the head of Capitol Pictures, Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner). Pleasantries are exchanged, and we learn that Lipnick wants Fink to pen a script for Wallace Beery, who will be portraying a “wrassler.” Lerner’s character is a stand-in for Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner and all of those other high-profile studio executives from back in the day. The picture that Lipnick wants Barton to write is actually based on MGM’s classic film, The Champ (1931). Beery did star in this melodrama about an alcoholic ex-boxer who is having a hard time providing for his son (Jackie Cooper).
Lipnick is also the outward manifestation of Barton’s internal pressure to produce a work of deep meaning while his producer Ben Geisler (Tony Shalhoub) represents the more arrogant aspect of his personality the one that thinks he has something important to say and that he is better than most at his profession.
They aren’t the only two colorful personalities in this horror story. Utilizing Geisler’s advice to seek out other writers to cure his block, Barton runs into W.P. Mayhew (John Mahoney) in the restroom, barfing his guts out in the toilet. Mayhew is one of Fink’s literary idols, and Fink is crestfallen to see that he is a drunken mess. Mahoney’s genteel gentleman is the Coen Brothers’ impression of Tennessee Williams. Fink seeks to get pointers from the alcoholic wordsmith, but to no avail. Instead, he forms a bond with Mayhew’s assistant and mistreated lover, Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis). They fall for one another, and in the course of their blooming relationship Barton finds out that Audrey is actually the one that pens Mayhew’s latest successes because Mayhew is too inebriated to write.
Circumstances might be looking up for Fink. He has a confidant in Charlie and a potential partner in Audrey. However, all of this is going to come crashing down after he spends the night with Ms. Taylor. After their passion is spent, Barton awakens to find that Audrey has been murdered. He has no recollection of how this was done, but he knows he didn’t do it. In a full-blown panic, he enlists Charlie’s help to figure out what to do with the body. Meadows disposes of it, and then before he leaves town he presents Barton with a wrapped box of all of his possessions for safekeeping.
As if this night of hellish terror wasn’t enough for Barton, he has a meeting with Lipnick to discuss his progress on the screenplay. He basically bullshits his way through it and returns to his room to do some actual work. Oddly enough, he is inspired and spends several days feverishly typing away. When he finishes his draft, the real fun begins. Now, he is being questioned about Charlie by two detectives from the LAPD. As it turns out, he is known as Carl “Mad Man” Muntz, and he is a serial killer not an insurance salesman.
Obviously shocked, Fink downplays their connection and doesn’t give the two flatfoots any info. We can see by looking at him, that he is a man unhinged. Barton isn’t home anymore. He is just going through the proverbial motions. We see just how disturbed he is when he heads out for a night on the town and is dancing like a mad man (reference intended) at a USO club. When he refuses to let a sailor cut in on his date, a brawl ensues. Fans of Sam Raimi’s Crimewave (1985) will appreciate the fight scene, which borrows heavily from the one in the director’s film…perhaps because Joel and his brother Ethan penned the script.
The next day, a hopeful Barton is in another meeting with Lipnick to discuss his finished story. While Fink thinks that he has produced his best work, the head of the studio has other ideas. “It won’t wash,” is what he is told, and then Lipnick berates him and basically calls him a hack. Instead of cutting him loose, he decides to keep Barton under contract but he won’t utilize him until he “grows up.”
The Final Countdown
As his descent into hell continues, the detectives accost Fink in his room. After seeing his bloody mattress, they have turned their suspicions to him and suggest that he and Charlie are in cahoots, particularly since Mayhew has been found decapitated. Suddenly, the temperature goes up, and as the gumshoes remark about it, Barton cryptically says, “Charlie’s back.” The entire hallway bursts into flames. Meadows appears, wielding a boomstick, and blows away both detectives. Satan has returned, just as Fink is about to make his getaway.
We find out the “Mad Man” has killed Barton’s parents and uncle in New York after paying them a visit at Fink’s suggestion. Emotionally spent, Barton grabs the mysterious wrapped box (which more than likely contains Audrey’s head) and goes to the beach. There, he spots a beautiful young woman who oddly enough, resembles the girl in the painting in his room. She sits down in front of him, striking the exact same pose as the gal in the picture. Finally, our hero might be at peace.
Barton Fink is ambitious. Like any good psychological horror film, it makes you question your sanity. Were the events in the movie in Fink’s head or did they really happen? Was he a murderer or did he truly meet Lucifer in the flesh masquerading as insurance salesman, Charlie Meadows? Did the Hotel Earle even exist? I might not have the correct answers to any of those questions but what I can tell you is Barton Fink might be one of the best Coen Brothers’ efforts and their only true scary movie excursion…