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September 16, 2008

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DVD of the Week – Review of Barton Fink (1991)

by TOM NIXON

2007’s No Country for Old Men may have been the most successful film of a fabulous career for the Coen Brothers, and now with the more light-hearted follow-up Burn After Reading in theaters it seems appropriate to point a finger towards their fabulous, often underappreciated back catalogue. With films like Raising Arizona, Fargo, The Big Lebowski and now No Country… hogging the plaudits, a host of similarly outstanding releases hide in relative obscurity awaiting the curious viewer, none more so than oddball satire of the creative process Barton Fink.

Barton (John Turturro) is a popular but unfulfilled ‘40s playwright with the rather self-important intention of bringing in a new kind of theater – one with the “common man’s touch.” Money soon gets the better of his own judgment, and he agrees to try bringing that touch to a wrestling movie despite knowing nothing about wrestling, the movies or the common man as it turns out. From the outset it’s quintessential Coen Brothers; from the crass New York business bigwig with a nasty streak to a romance with an old-school Hollywood dame to a fast-talking detective duo in complete adherence to noir clichés. It drips with macabre deadpan humor, and following on from morbid debut Blood Simple is a penchant for seemingly random imagery or noises which in their apparent irrelevance allude to a disordered state of mind. And Barton’s mind is nothing if not disordered, as he struggles with writer’s block in a beautifully eerie hotel which usually, despite showing signs of numerous tenants, only seems to contain himself, creepy hotel clerk Chet (Steve Buscemi) and next door neighbor Charlie Meadows (John Goodman).

It’s hard to over-praise Turturro’s subtle turn as this unsettled, pompous intellectual struggling to create in and for a world he doesn’t understand, but Goodman is in many ways the star of the show, alternately amiable and menacing, full of sweaty presence and glorious lines. He represents the common man to Fink, who promptly befriends him, readily interrupting and patronizing him with pretentious speeches about his goals as a writer. It soon turns out that Meadows (or, as the detectives call him, Mad Man Munt) is the wrong person to patronize; his mind houses a madness (and some uncomfortable truths for Fink) which explodes in a hilarious, hellish climax. It can’t be described, and like the rest of the picture it can’t be given any definitive interpretation – it needs to be seen.

The film’s absolutely packed full of layers, and its obliqueness can no doubt be held responsible for its apparent inaccessibility, but Barton Fink is so masterfully cinematic. Stylistically it’s like an old 1940s classic reinterpreted through the lens of David Lynch, complete with an ingenious script, exquisite lighting and camerawork, and a score which adds a strange sense of tragedy to proceedings more affecting than is expected from a movie teeming with satire and gimmickry. Hopefully with the Coens’ popularity flaring up once again, new additions to their fan base won’t ignore what is surely one of their richest, most definitive efforts.

Bonus features are a little on the thin side, but include theatrical trailers, eight deleted scenes and a bunch of production stills.

New releases this week: 88 Minutes, Before the Rains, Finding Amanda, Kabluey, Made of Honor, Snow Angels, Speed Racer, Young@Heart


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  1. James
    Oct 9 2008

    I’m pretty partial to this outing by the Coens and am inclined to label it as their best film. I was a freshman in college when I rented this from one of the local video stores and was struck by how flat out creepy it was, with those long lingering shots of Barton staring at peeling wallpaper that vaguely suggest flesh and blood, the distant sound of muffled voices in laughing conversation, etc.

    I read on a Coen brothers fan site that they’ve hinted at wanting to make a sequel to “Barton Fink” and I’m surprisingly eager for such an excursion.

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