Why Barton Fink is the Coen Brothers’ horror film
Four Oscar wins, thirteen nominations, the Cannes Film Festival’s top honour of Palme d’Or, overall box office takings of nearly $1 billion and entire cults based on their films; it could be argued that The Coen Brothers are the most vital North America directors of the last 25 years. Over their near thirty year career, they’ve made a whole range of genre spanning flicks, from violent crime (Blood Simple, Fargo) to gangster (Miller’s Crossing), screwball comedy (Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, Raising Arizona), western (No Country For Old Men, True Grit) and the fairly hard to describe (more on that later…), and picked up a fine list of recurring cast members, including Jeff Bridges, George Clooney, John Turturro, John Goodman and Frances McDormand.
Throughout many of their films, there also seems to be the recurring use of explosive, and often gory, violence. The most famous, or possibly infamous case of this is the scene in Fargo in which Peter Stormare feeds Steve Buscemi’s dead body into a woodchipper, but look at any Coen Brothers film and you’re likely to see your fair share of gore; No Country for Old Men featured a hitman who liked to shoot people with a bolt gun, True Grit featured a young man having his fingers chopped off, and the list goes on. Hell, even The Big Lebowski, one of the best comedies of all time, featured main character The Dude having his genitals attacked by a rabid ferret.
Sadly, however, despite all the bloodshed and carnage, The Coen Brothers have yet to make a full on, classic horror film. Just imagine a Coen Brothers take on a film like The Shining; long, static shots of the creepy settings, a dark, unforgettable hero, probably played by an against-type John Goodman, a typically put upon hero played by bookish John Turturro, all leading up to a wild climax. Hang on a second…it appears I’ve just described The Coen Brothers’ majestic 1991 Barton Fink, which is not only one of the most underrated works in their careers, but is also overlooked as a nightmarish, tense, violent film that is never referred to as a horror film by fans or critics, but might be just be the Coen Brothers’ definitive horror masterpiece.
Barton Fink follows a playwright, played subtly and passively by Turturro, who has just been hired by Hollywood boss Jack Lipnick (the Oscar nominated Michael Lerner) to write a “wrestling move”. Fink, being a writer of artistic character studies about the common man, has no idea of how to write, and checks himself in for a long stay at the Hotel Earle. The Hotel Earle, it instantly becomes clear, is up there with the Bates Motel and The Overlook as one of the most frightful accommodations in cinematic history. The wallpaper is slowly peeling off, there seems to be very few people around, and the corridors are endless and eerily still.
One night while trying to write, he hears distracting noises from next door and complains. The source: his neighbour, the friendly Charlie Meadows (the always loveable John Goodman). Meadows is a friendly and understanding fellow who identifies with Barton for writing about the common man. The main first half of the movie is taken up with Barton’s failure to write the screenplay and his depressing drinking sessions with the permanently leaking (suffering from a repulsive ear infection) Charlie.
The film changes tack after Fink meets Audrey (Judy Davis), the secretary of a novelist who also happens to write most of his work. Barton asks for her help with the writing, and sleeps with her. Waking up the next morning to find a mosquito on her back (throughout the film, Barton’s room is plagued with mosquitoes, a metaphor for the distractions flying around in his mind), he slaps it dead, only to discover it forming a huge pool of blood. In a horrific scene, Barton discovers the blood to be Audrey’s, and that she has been brutally murdered.
Charlie, after being clued in by Barton, disposes of the body knowledgeably and warns Barton not to tell the police. Barton is slightly unsure of Charlie, but goes along with it, until Charlie goes to New York and Barton is visited by police officers, who inform him that Charlie’s real name is Karl “Madman” Mundt, and he is a wanted serial killer whose preferred method of execution involves decapitation and keeping the head in a bag; similar to the package that Charlie had given Barton before he departed.
Suddenly inspired by all the chaos around him, Barton finishes his screenplay in one night, and feels like he can celebrate. Once again, however, he is visited by the police who handcuff him and blame him for the mysterious death of an executive. It is at this point that all hell breaks loose, and the horror comes alive. Flames roar throughout the building as Charlie returns as Madman Mundt and murders the officers with a shotgun, while exclaiming “Heil Hitler!” before turning back into friendly old Charlie and conversing with Barton amidst the fire. After a brief conversation, Meadows implies he has killed Barton’s family, before retiring to his room. Barton then goes onto be humiliated and admonished by Lipnick for a shoddy screenplay, and his life and career are in tatters.
The horror of Barton Fink does not lie in over the top jumping or ultraviolence, at least not for the most part. The real horror of Barton Fink is nothingness; the dull waiting, the quiet calm before the storm, the eerie still and silence building up to a climax. Many people don’t like Barton Fink because of its slow pace and minimal action but that is the point; it takes chaos and frenzy and fear to inspire Barton to write, not the tranquillity of his everyday life. Yet, it still feels like a classic horror film of the Kubrickian order.
The scene in which Barton discovers the pool of blood surrounding Audrey is genuinely horrifying, and lives up the trademark Coen Brothers gore. The flies buzzing around, the crimson soaked bed sheets; this is gore on a major level, and probably put off many casual viewers. However, it is the ending scene of Munt’s return that is the major set piece and climax of Barton Fink.
Throughout the film, we’ve had our suspicions of friendly old Charlie, of his expertise in disposing of bodies and potential criminal record, but it is only at this point that we learn what Charlie meant by describing his job as selling “peace of mind”. He shows tremendous power and intensity when he interrupts the interrogation, launching down the corridor, shotgun in hand. It’s a chilling moment, made somehow creepier by his pledge to Hitler. It’s unknown entirely why he says it, but that seems to me to be the point; he is a true ‘madman’ and believes in the convictions of his words and actions, even when he doesn’t understand them himself.
The casting of John Goodman is a stroke of genius, because it is almost impossible to want to suspect Charlie as a serial killer, because it’s one of the most beloved actors in cinema. He was casted by the Coen brothers for “the warm and friendly image that he projects for the viewer” and they were completely right; he’s incredibly likeable and draws much of the sympathy, especially in comparison to the fairly fastidious and intellectual Barton, so when it’s revealed he is a psychopathic murderer, it’s a real gut punch twist.
John Turturro’s performance, meanwhile, is possibly one of the reasons it’s hard to classify Barton Fink as an out and out horror; his performance is so understated (and deserving of the Best Actor at Cannes award) and buttoned up that he doesn’t react like you feel he should. He doesn’t scream at the top of his lungs or beg for mercy, or any other traditional staples; his reaction to the slaughter he witnesses is just one of other confusion. It’s a really sublime performance that seems to be forgotten in the long line of other terrific Coen Brothers’ lead roles, but is every bit as good as Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski, Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men, and Steve Buscemi in Fargo.
Barton Fink is certainly the most underrated Coen Brothers film in their illustrious back catalogue; every bit as good as their classic films but never held in the same regard. While it could be argued that the Coen Brothers have never, and probably will never, make an all out horror film, we fans can cast our eye to Barton Fink as being their true horror film; an ominous, insidious film with a creepy location, a chilling, schizophrenic performance from the usually loveable John Goodman, and all out carnage at its climax. If you’re a horror fan, a Coen Brothers fan, or just a film fan, you must seek out and watch Barton Fink, the scariest film the Coen Brothers have ever made.
By Harry J. Ford
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