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.