What exactly is Barton Fink about, really? What do all of these vague symbols and political allusions add up to, and does the deeper “truth” to them really matter? Barton Fink seems in deeply enamored with its own ambiguities, both in narrative architecture and thematically.
It’s about the mental and emotional unraveling of a blowhard writer lacking in any discernible talent but not lacking in any smug self-satisfaction an ego with some references to fascism thrown in. I remain unsold on there being more to “get” here than merely a cavalcade of disparate but fascinating ideas crammed together with panache. The Coen Brothers manage to sustain the weirdness and free associative nature of the plot and characters, seemingly held together by black humor and a pervading sense of dourness, with artistic bravado and technical mastery.
Look no further than the persistent symbolism of Barton’s unraveling blind and artistic blockage. It’s first glimpsed by the wallpaper of his hotel room coming undone, and Barton trying to push it all back in place as if restoring creative order to the world. It’s followed by a series of character interactions that reveal layers of deceptions and artifice in order to keep the wheels of Hollywood spinning. The creative muse is a fickle mistress throughout Barton Fink, not only to the lead character, but to one resembling a funhouse mirror of William Faulkner, descended into alcoholism and his writing performed by his mistress/secretary.
Deals with the devil do not provide Faustian bargains, there’s no sweet moment of euphoria before the bottom drops out. There is only the bottom dropping out and the creeping rush of encroaching darkness. Not only in the surprise twist with Charlie, Barton’s neighbor in the hotel and a pleasant everyman insurance salesman type that’s also the most likable character in the movie, but in a high-ranking producer and the studio executive that spit rapid-fire insults laced with profanity as they do empty ego-boosting platitudes. Tony Shalhoub is great in a bit part as the producer, but Michael Lerner as the studio head is really playing for the rafters. I mean that as a compliment as he’s a riot of vulgarly wielded power, clearly playing his studio head as a riff on Louis B. Meyer and probably some more modern references behind the scenes.
Of course there’s the bewildering shrug that I meet with the reoccurring image of the woman on the beach only for Barton to meet her in the end. What does it mean? No idea. Frankly, I don’t really care. It made me laugh, and I think the entire point of it was some kind of cosmic joke. It’s almost as if you must take on Barton Fink on an image-by-image basis. Individual scenes clearly throb with deeper meanings while others are merely there to land a joke or provide a character actor a moment to shine.
The thing that ties it all together is an extremely game cast. John Turturro as Barton is overly earnest, completely lacking in self-awareness, and prone to rhapsodizing about his lofty goals with no output or talent to match. Turturro’s a perfect match for the dark comedic tone that the Coen Brothers are striving for throughout. While John Mahoney gets to turn a caricature of William Faulkner into an excuse for mugging, a ridiculous accent, and slapstick. Judy Davis as his secretary/mistress plays everything with an arched eyebrow and wry tone of voice. While John Goodman clearly walks away with best in show for his overly polite, jovial manners masking over monstrous secrets that lead towards the film’s apocalyptic finale.
It is a strange journey, but a highly enjoyable one for me. Some may find the dourness and frankly overall sour pointing towards misanthropic if not nihilistic tone a bit much. Maybe my sense of humor is just that skewed, but I rode out Barton Fink’s wavelength towards the closing credits and had a good time. What does it all? Anything you want it to mean.