Barton Fink Movie Interpretation

Barton Fink Movie Interpretation

Ever since it was released in 1991, the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink has been leaving viewers puzzled and delighted by the wide range of symbols, themes, and overall cinematic artistry. Others are just downright confused by the whole affair, so this article is aimed at those looking to have Barton Fink explained to them.

Our Barton Fink movie analysis will take a look at some of the many recurring motifs in the film, as well as touch on key elements such as the role of the soundtrack and the ambiguous ending. If we’ve done our job correctly, anyone seeking a Barton Fink explanation will come away a little wiser.

Critical Reaction and Success of Barton Fink

Barton Fink was a huge hit with the critics, and it also managed to capture an unusual three awards at the Cannes Film Festival (the Palme d’Or, Best Actor, Best Director). Later that year, Cannes would institute a new rule stating that films could only win two awards. The movie was also honored with three Oscar nominations, including Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, and Best Supporting Actor (Michael Lerner).

Unfortunately, the movies wasn’t nearly as successful when it came to box office revenue. Having cost an estimated $9 million to make, Barton Fink only managed to pull in a little over $6 million at the box office.

Barton Fink Plot

Here’s the basic plot of Barton Fink. This section is spoiler free, so don’t worry if you’ve yet to see the movie.

Barton Fink (John Turturro) is a successful New York writer in the early 1940s who’s offered a lucrative contract to move to Hollywood and write screenplays for Capitol Pictures. Wanting to keep in touch with the “common man,” Barton takes up residence at a ramshackle L.A. hotel known as the Earle.

While his studio boss (Michael Lerner) assures Barton that he’s interested in the artistic merit of his work, our protagonist finds it hard to produce the wrestling movie script that’s assigned to him. This is largely due to the noises coming from various room in the Earle, especially the buzz of a mosquito and the racket caused by his insurance salesman neighbor, Charlie Meadows (John Goodman).

From there, things get increasingly complicated. There’s a woman, a murder, a mysterious package given to Barton by Charlie, and a pair of police detectives who come snooping around. Meanwhile, Barton grapples with the idea of selling out and studies the lone picture hanging on the wall of his hotel room (a woman sunbathing).

Barton Fink Meaning

When you watch Barton Fink, here are some elements to keep an eye out for:

  • The Importance of Setting – The Hotel Earle is meant to evoke an air or putrefaction, and the Coen brothers accomplished this by using green and yellow heavily in the structure’s design scheme. The building is also meant to be a reflection Charlie’s mental and physical state, as the peeling wallpaper and seeping paste mirror his deteriorating mental state and chronic ear infection.
  • Homoerotic Overtones – When Charlie and Barton first meet, Charlie delivers the line, “I’d feel better about the damned inconvenience if you’d let me buy you a drink.” While this line alone isn’t enough to suggest homoerotic overtones, Barton is later confronted by a detective who asks if he and Charlie had a sexual relationship. And then there’s the moment where Barton and Charlie wrestle, described in 2001 by Joel Coen as a “sex scene.”
  • Hum of a Mosquito – The hum of a mosquito figures prominently in Barton Fink, especially when the character is driven to distraction by the whining sound produced by a circling bloodsucker. Later, when Barton kills a mosquito feeding on the back of a woman, he subsequently turns her over to find that she’s been killed. Even the score of the film reflects a mosquito via the use of high pitched strings.
  • Fascism – The film is set at the beginning of World War II, and a number of references are made to the rise of fascism. The names of the police detectives are German and Italian, and one of them even notes that Barton is a Jew. Barton’s failure to recognize Charlie’s dangerous nature suggests a commentary on all those who failed to immediately acknowledge the threat of Adolph Hitler. And to cap things off, Charlie delivers the line “Heil Hitler,” while committing a heinous act.
  • High Art vs. Low Art – Barton is playwright who prides himself of making art, but his entry into the Hollywood machine destroys his dreams of high-minded entertainment. The same struggle is reflected in Barton’s fascination with the lone painting on his wall: that of a woman sunbathing. It’s a work of pure low art, but as Barton is slowly ground down by the system, he considers it more and more.

Barton Fink Ending

The Barton Fink ending has been the subject of much debate. This section contains spoilers, so consider yourself warned.

After escaping from the flaming Hotel Earle and subsequently being dressed down by his boss, Barton heads to the beach still carrying the mysterious package given to him by Charlie (we learned earlier in the film that Charlie is a serial killer who likes to cut off the heads of his victims and keep them as souvenirs). There, he sees a woman who looks exactly like the one depicted in the photograph on his hotel room wall. She asks what’s in the box, and Barton replies that he doesn’t know. He then asks her if she’s in pictures, and she replies that she isn’t. The film ends with the woman adopting the same pose as the photo.

So what does it mean? In my opinion, it’s meant to reflect the relationship between art and reality. Throughout the film, Barton must grapple with the subject, whether he’s dealing with his crazed neighbor or trying to balance his aspirations as an artist with the bottom line mentality of Hollywood. The woman in the picture, and on the beach, is simply the embodiment of this clash.

That concludes our humble Barton Fink analysis, and I hope you’ve found it useful in uncovering some of the film’s symbolism and subtext. There’s much more to Barton Fink than what’s been discussed above, however, so I urge you to watch it and discover the additional elements for yourself.

8 thoughts on “Barton Fink Movie Interpretation

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  2. Thanks for the pointers for analysing Barton Fink. It helps a lot. Personally I would take the ending as Fink’s brink to escape and it reminds me of 400 Blows about the uncertainty of Barton Fink’s fate. I totally agreed on the theme of high art v.s low art,Barton actually struggled to connect with the common man by giving us philopshichal stuff but on the other hand it his boss thinks little about it. You may forget the peeling wallpaper,I read that it symbolise Charlie’s mindset. Great post!

  3. I don’t know how to tell you this, but simply listing a number of subjects or motifs that are referenced in a film (fascism, high and low art, mosquitoes) does not amount to an analysis or an interpretation of the film.

    You write, “In my opinion, it’s meant to reflect the relationship between art and reality.” Well, that’s a start, but (like the movie) it falls short of actually saying anything about the relationship between art and reality. In other words, if you’re going to say that Barton Fink reflects the relationship between art and reality. . . you have to state what (the movie says) that relationship is. You have to say how the sequence of events in the movie, or the choices your characters make, supports your thesis.

    In my opinion, the film, though beautifully made, is meaningless–like all of the Coen Brothers’ work. Unfortunately, there’s nothing in your so-called interpretation of the movie to dissuade me of that notion. All you’ve done is point to a couple of random elements of the film and said, “There’s a reference to fascism.” “There’s a reference to homo-eroticism”

    That’s not an interpretation of anything.

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  5. At first I thought that this, like another Coen film I can’t recall, was a retelling of a Biblical or otherwise ancient story. Apparently not. Is Charlie meant to be the Devil? I thought it would have been cool if John had played both Charlie and the movie mogul.
    Anyway. I missed the connection that Charlie had killed the woman in the bed. The weeping wallpaper made no sense to me, but maybe that — weeping — is what it was supposed to symbolize. Likewise, the mosquito made no sense, nor did the mosquito bites. Is this a noir film? I can see why it didn’t sell in theaters but I can see it as a perfect Coen bros. project.

  6. This is my first time to comment on a film. After 4 viewings, I found peace with the mysteries I saw in the film. Barton, though he talks a good show about wanting to write about “the common man”, doesn’t see anything around him as worthy of being a subject. He fears learning about the common man, or anything else outside his experience. His experience teems with material for a watchful writer, but Barton sees nothing. When the wallpaper peels, he doesn’t look for what’s underneath or an explanation, he feverishly tries to cover up what’s “exposed” as fast as he can (uno metaphoro). I agree with about Goodman presenting Barton with a “common man” right in his own room. He has a research subject to learn from and to use as a springboard to break through his “writer’s block”, but he can’t see anything that “god” presents for him to use. Even when he is told that mosquitos don’t exist in hollywood because of the dry weathe, he doesn’t simply inquire why there is one in his room? And the Woman on the Beach. Interesting that he never sees her face. He can never really SEE her but seems drawn to her and fascinated by her. He is drawn to the fact that she is “unseeable”. In the end he “sees” her and doesn’t explore that possibility either. The Box? He never opens it. We assume what we want to assume, but Barton, who is in control (!) simply attaches to the box without ever “discovering” it. He is all show and no substance. I agree, his one hit (the play) may be all he has in him. He’s a one-trick pony posing as a seeking writer, intent on revealing the inner “common man” but is petrified by fear, ignorance or what-you-will. Look at the film again with an eye to his inability to “see” what is clearly revealed to him. you may “see” what I mean! ”He is the Common Man”

  7. Totally agree with tarzana311 but didn’t realize it till I read that comment. We see him trying to pose as an enlightened person who can see the plight of the average man but by the end it should be clear that he is just as pretentious and maybe as phony as the upper class intellectuals he tries to distance himself from like the alcoholic Meyhew. When he is dancing at the USO function we hear him condescend to the enlisted men saying his mind is his uniform and that, essentially, he is better than them.
    You can see his lack of ability to connect with the common man with the way he shuts down Charlie whenever he tries to “tell him some stories” or writes Meyhew off as worthless. Audrey tells Fink that to have empathy you need to be understanding, something that Fink is clearly unable to do despite his perception of himself as a writer of the people, for the people. The viewer can also see Fink’s idea of what entertainment for the common man should be and how it is proven to be off base. Everyone that reads his screenplay either thinks it’s fruity or simple poetic crap. It’s even possible that he was literally rehashing material from the hit play he recently released, even ending the movie the same way he ended the play with “We’ll hear from him again, and I don’t mean in a postcard.”
    I think there is hope for him at the end to change, however. He does accept the box willingly and attach it to himself without question but he is uncertain of it, and of himself. He doesn’t know what’s in the box or if it even belongs to himself. At this point in the movie I think it’s safe to assume he may have similar questions about himself. It’s from not being certain and having questions that a character can grow and following the events of the movie I think there is room for that to happen for Fink.

  8. I too am fasinated by this movie and in particular its ending. Most commenters assume Charlie murdered Audrey. However, l find it quite likely that Barton killed her as part of a severe mental breakdown that occurred that night. The surreal nature of the hallway scenes is the view from his psychotic mind. Note that Charlie was repulsed by the site of Audrey’s body. A likely response upon seeing it the first time. Also, consider how implausible it is to break into a possibly locked hotel room and murder one occupant of the bed without waking the other. The tracking shot following the love making to the descent down the drain hole is the metaphor for Barton’s breakdown and his subsequent evil action. Barton has moments of lucidity but always blocks out any memory of his murderous act. Mundt assists Barton by removing Audrey’s corpse and it is her head in the box, which Barton’s unconscious mind will never let him open. For me it is irrelevant who kills Mayhew.

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