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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

Barton Fink (1991)



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From the warped, surreal minds of the Coen brothers comes this deliciously twisted tale of a writer, preoccupied with writing about the "common man" that he forgets to take the time to learn about them, who is hired to write film screenplays in Hollywood. John Turturro, in the title role, is spectacular, attaining that delicate balance between vigorous enthusiasm and inexperienced nervousness, refusing to "sell out" even in the act of doing so.

But this is more than a human (or inhuman!) drama about a writer. True to the Coen brothers' unpredictability, just when you think you know where Barton Fink is going, you are jolted out of that false security with alluringly horrific viciousness.

The dialogue is especially noteworthy, every word sparkling. The Coens' films are infamous for their fantastic dialogue, which can be simultaneously funny and horrifying, and this is no exception.

Yet it's not the plot twists and dialogue that create the lurking undercurrent of horror, it's the staging and the silence. Barton Fink checks into a hotel. An innocent enough event? But the hotel is so deathly silent and empty. There's a bellboy (Steve Buscemi), a neighbor (John Goodman), a mosquito, and a pair of shoes outside each door, and that's all there is to this hotel. Inexplicably, this alone is scarier than most horror films. I've seldom been as uneasy watching any film as I was when I saw the wallpaper peeling off the walls, or the eerie tracking shot into the bathroom. This kind of emotional involvement is rare in what is, at its core, a black comedy.

And what makes Barton Fink so great is what it has to say -- its bitter statement on the writing profession. For many, the end credits will roll too soon, and it will seem at first a clumsy and awkward ending. It is not. Without giving too much of the plot away, listen to the various speeches Barton Fink is given and consider that, perhaps, they might be right.