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[Blu-ray Review] ‘Barton Fink’ is Peak Coen Brothers

The Coen Brothers have been my favorite directors for as long as I can remember. Their track record is nearly spotless, save for The Ladykillers, and they have a style that is uniquely their own. Ranking their films is a nearly impossible task but I still find myself giving it a go every couple months or so. The films shift order constantly but I typically settle on the same five films for my top five — Raising Arizona, No Country for Old Men, Blood Simple, Fargo and Inside Llewyn Davis. That’s a great top five, without question, and the fact that those five films all come from the same pair of directors is remarkable. Even more remarkable is the fact that Barton Fink doesn’t crack their top five. There are a number of other great directors with excellent filmographies that have never made a film as good as Barton Fink. And yet, for Ethan and Joel it’s just another day at the office.

Coen Brothers regular John Turturro stars as the titular Barton Fink, a New York playwright. Coming fresh off the heels of his first successful play, Barton is offered a high paying job to move out to Hollywood and write for the movies. He’s reluctant at first because he doesn’t care about the money and he’s worried about being separating from the common man. For Barton it’s all about the passion and art behind the writing. His agent finally convinces him that it would be in his best interest so Barton makes the move.

Once in Hollywood Barton meets the head of Capital Pictures, Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner), and gets his first assignment — a wrestling picture. Barton knows nothing about wrestling and he explains this to Jack but in Jack’s opinion that doesn’t matter. The picture writes itself, Barton just needs to type it up. Once again Barton reluctantly accepts and goes back to his hotel to get to work. His hotel being the Earle, which isn’t quite a dump but it’s not the snazziest place in town. Barton prefers to stay there because it’s “less Hollywood.”

No matter how hard he tries Barton cannot seem to get his script started. It’s not that he just doesn’t know anything about wrestling either, he’s just drawing a blank. It doesn’t help that the person in the room next to him is making a bunch of noise. Barton is convinced this noise is part of the problem and finally builds up the courage to call the front desk and issue a complaint. Shortly after he hangs up the phone someone comes knocking on the door. When Barton opens the door he sees Charlie Meadows (John Goodman). Charlie asks if Barton complained and then apologizes for making so much noise. Barton and Charlie eventually hit it off because they are seemingly opposites. Barton loves Charlie because he views him as the prime example of the common man and Charlie loves Barton because he works in the pictures.

Barton Fink is one of the most open-ended movies you’ll ever see. What I mean is that it offers up a lot of information without ever giving any real answers. The audiences gets to decide what exactly happens and what everything means. Fans of the film will agree that it’s very funny and at times disturbing, but beyond that everyone will have their own take on the meaning behind everything within the film. That’s part of what makes it so damn enjoyable.

BARTON FINK, John Turturro, John Goodman, 1991. TM & Copyright(c) 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved..

Barton is a very ironic character even if he doesn’t realize it. He hates Hollywood and everyone that works in the pictures because he sees them as nothing but phonies, a bunch of out-of-touch elitists. Barton views himself as the representation of the common man. He thinks he speaks for the common man and wants to tell stories about the common man. Yet when Barton first meets Charlie he’s very insulting, going on and on about how he loves how simple and common Charlie is. Barton really sees the common man as stupid, slow and uneducated. He views himself in a higher regard than everyone else. When it boils down to it, Barton is everything he hates.

Part of the beautiful open-endedness of Barton Fink is that we never know if he’s truly a good writer. He thinks he is and acts like he is, but is he? He’s only had one play and sure it was a success, but it was just one. It’s not like he has years of success in New York to fill out his resume. It’s just the one play. And in Hollywood he can’t overcome writer’s block. Maybe Barton just isn’t very good.

Barton Fink has always been a movie I’ve really enjoyed, but this most recent viewing — my first in about a decade — made me truly love and appreciate the film because it so perfectly highlights what makes Ethan and Joel such great filmmakers. The film is chock-full of Coen signatures — bizarre hair, darkly comedic, interesting characters and maybe most notably of all repetition. For years the Coen Brothers have used repetition to effectively tell their stories and it’s maybe never been more prominent than it is in Barton Fink. There are so many lines and phrases that are repeated throughout the film that stick with you.

After years of waiting and hoping, Kino Lorber has finally come to the rescue and released Barton Fink on Blu-ray and what a wonderful job they have done. Kino Lorber really has a knack for making sure their restorations have a cinematic film quality and this is no different. They don’t digitally clean things up to the point of smoothing everything out, they maintain the texture and grain that makes film so beautiful.

It’s especially important that Barton Fink maintains that natural quality because the look of the film and how it was captured is historically important. Barton Fink marked the first time the Coens stopped working with longtime DP Barry Sonnenfeld, which has its own level of significance, and the first time they started working with Roger Deakins. In the 27 years since this film’s release the Coens have gone to create a more iconic partnership with Deakins than they had with Sonnenfeld which is quite the remarkable feat. This first film together foreshadows a lot of the wonderful work they have gone on to create together.

If you’re looking for special features this thing is loaded. Nothing with Ethan and Joel but plenty of their regulars make an appearance including Turturro. Special features include:

  • Interview with Star John Turturro
  • Interview with actor Michael Lerner
  • Interview with Producer Ben Barenholtz
  • Interview with Composer Carter Burwell
  • Interview with sound editor Skip Lievsay
  • 8 Deleted Scenes
  • Original Theatrical Trailer

While it somehow doesn’t manage to crack their top top five, Barton Fink is still one of the best films from a pair of America’s finest filmmakers. Kino Lorber does it justice and delivers on a must-own Blu-ray.

Barton Fink is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber.

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