John Turturro in Barton Fink

Tortured Souls and the Life of the Mind: The Inscrutable ‘Barton Fink’

Joel and Ethan Coen have skirted the edges of various genres through the years and, in the process, even created a few of their own. They ventured the furthest into horror territory in 1991 with a film that is in some ways the most Coen Brothers of all Coen Brothers films, Barton Fink. Written when they hit a wall during the writing of Miller’s Crossing (or at least according to legends that have arisen over the years), the film externalises the hell inside a writer’s head when faced with the object of his greatest dread—the blank page.

The question that so often surrounds Barton Fink is “what the hell is this about anyway?” The fact is, there are as many answers to that question as there are viewers of the film. One thing we know for sure, the Coens will never tell us what they think it is. So, with all that in mind, these are merely my thoughts about this eternally deep, puzzling, and ultimately inscrutable film—but none of those things are necessarily bad.

As star John Turturro has commented, Barton Fink is a film about heads. Barton is a character always in his own head, another character is revealed to be a killer who cuts off heads, and there may or may not be a head in that box. Charlie Meadows (John Goodman) is the one who constantly reminds us about the head. He is an insurance salesman who sells “a little peace of mind.” He is regularly stuffing his infected ear with cotton to “staunch the flow of pus” but there is an eerie sense that he is stopping his brain from leaking out through his ear. He doesn’t see the point of seeing a doctor because he is sure no one will be able to do anything lasting about the chronic infections. “I can’t trade my head in for a new one,” he tells Barton as if this would be the only solution. He also comments that Barton will figure his way out of his writer’s block because he has a good head on his shoulders and “where there’s a head, there’s hope.” When the truth is finally revealed about Charlie, we are once again reminded of heads.

But as much as I agree with Turturro that the film is about heads, it is much more a film about souls. Lost souls, tainted souls, sold souls, and ultimately the journey to regain the soul. Barton never entirely loses his in the course of the film, but he is certainly on the path toward it. Right from the beginning, there is a sense that Barton is selling his soul by going to write for the movies. His agent encourages him to go to Hollywood, make a lot of money, and the “common man” that he so desperately wishes to champion through his writing will still be there when he returns. After all, he’ll be able to finance his nouveau theatre for this worthy cause with all that California gold. 

The truly sold soul of the film is the William Faulkner inspired character W.P. “Bill” Mayhew, the great novelist who has come to Hollywood to gain fortune only to find writer’s block, alcoholism, and complete misery, played by John Mahoney. He has squandered his gift and knows it. He drinks to numb that pain and, in the process, causes unspeakable pain to everyone who encounters him. The most acutely affected is the film’s lost soul, Audrey Taylor (Judy Davis), Mayhew’s “personal secretary” and lover. Hers is the film’s most tragic story. One of melancholy, abuse, denial, and ultimately the film’s greatest twist of fate.

This tragic twist leads to Barton’s redemption, or at least his attempt at it. In the end, it’s hard to say whether or not he actually turns on the path and completely regains his soul, but his intentions are certainly geared in that direction. Through his encounters with the corrupted souls of the studio, particularly the Louis B. Mayer/David O. Selznick-inspired studio head Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner) and jaded producer Ben Geisler (Tony Shalhoub) he knows he doesn’t belong in their bitter, vapid, and soulless world. By seeing the effects of the Hollywood Machine on Bill and Audrey, he knows he must somehow escape it, or at least not allow himself to be ground in its gears as they have. 

At the same time, Fink is an artist, and artists are full of contradictions. Put simply, he is an absolute hypocrite and snob. He claims that he wants to connect to the “common man” but constantly looks down on them. He complains about the burdens of “the life of the mind” with Charlie as if the man has never had a profound thought in his life. “I have pain most people don’t know anything about,” Fink laments, completely oblivious of his status and the rare opportunities he has been given. He thinks he is doing all the “non-intellectuals” a favour by writing their stories and sharing them on stage and screen. As the film opens with a production of his great “play for the common man,” it is clearly being attended only by people who have no connection with that world—the upper crust snobs (just like him) that he is supposedly railing against. The movies, on the other hand, are largely already the theatre of the common man, especially in the era of the early ‘40s that the movie takes place. Anyone could plunk down a nickel or a dime to see a movie while only the elite could afford to see Fink’s plays on Broadway. 

Barton has rather grand opinions of himself without ever realising it. When he eventually does break through his block and write his screenplay, he goes out to wildly celebrate at a USO party. For the first time in the film, he is exultant, joyful, and uninhibited. When a sailor tries to cut in on his dance, Barton lectures him on the importance of his work. He cries out “I am the creator!” before getting punched in the nose. He might as well be shouting “I am God and you are mere insects living in my world.” What he doesn’t seem to acknowledge is that all he’s done is rewritten the play we saw at the beginning of the film! When it comes down to it, Barton Fink is a hack and a fraud, not a revelatory genius. Exactly as his name suggests, he’s just a fink—someone who lacks the courage or commitment to follow through. But he’s trying to be more. To look beyond himself and achieve something better, however, he has to go through hell.

Lucky (or unlucky) for him, he checks into hell as soon as he arrives in Los Angeles. It just happens to go by the name The Hotel Earle. In it, the temperatures constantly rise, the flame-like patterned wallpaper sweats its way off the walls, and a lone mosquito buzzes in his ears and bites Barton’s face in his sleep. He can hear muffled conversations from nearby rooms through the walls and pipes. Even the rough-textured ceiling is a mocking reminder of the blank page in his typewriter. The staff look like they haven’t slept in ages. The elevator operator endlessly sits at his post and the bellboy, Chet (Steve Buscemi), inhabits some kind of unseen underground lair. His one glimpse that heaven, peace, and freedom may lie beyond is a painting on the wall of a woman sitting on a beach gazing out at an endless ocean on a beautiful day.

What Barton never seems to realise is that Charlie routinely offers him a way out of his prison. Charlie’s regular refrain of “I could tell you some stories” is the clear salvation Barton seeks, but he is so mired in his own theories and philosophies that he cannot hear. If he simply let Charlie speak, he would have the starting point he needs. When Charlie returns in a blaze of fire like Satan returning to his dominion, he screams “look upon me! I’ll show you the life of the mind!” making it clear that he is not the knuckle-dragging dullard that Barton perceives him to be. Charlie then makes it clear what Barton’s true problem is. “You don’t listen!” He expounds by calling out Barton’s comfort and privilege, revealing that he may think he’s in touch with the reality of the common man but is actually clueless. “You think you know pain? You think I made your life hell? Take a look around this dump. You’re just a tourist with a typewriter, Barton, I live here.” Charlie is the true master of the Earle, but not completely devoid of compassion. He just wants to be met with some courtesy, and some sympathy, and some taste. All Barton needs to say is “I’m sorry” and Charlie sets him free and lets him walk down the hall and out of the burning hotel.

In the climactic sequences, it becomes clear that The Hotel Earl is a physical manifestation of the hell inside Barton’s head. In fact, perhaps the Hotel is his own head. Which brings us full circle to our first point. Barton’s head is a fevered, noisy, and distracting place. He is so preoccupied with high ideals that he can’t see the forest for the trees. When he has finally broken from his prison and written his screenplay, it is rejected by the studio. But instead of firing him and setting him free to return to New York, Lipnick forces him to fulfil his contract. “Anything you write is gonna be the property of Capitol Pictures and Capitol Pictures is not gonna produce anything you write. Not until you grow up a little. You ain’t no writer, Fink. You’re a goddamn write-off.” He is required to stay “in town and out of my sight” for the remainder of his contract. So, he has escaped hell only to be trapped in purgatory.

Despite being shackled to Los Angeles, linked to the Hollywood Mephistopheles that threatens to destroy his Faustian soul, he finds himself catching a glimpse of his salvation in the final scene. He wanders onto the beach with the box Charlie left for him, which may or may not contain a head—Audrey’s? Someone else’s? His own? A young woman walks toward him and comments, “it’s a beautiful day.” It seems that Barton hasn’t been able to notice any kind of beauty during his entire stay in the city. He says to her, “you’re very beautiful, are you in pictures?” She responds by saying “don’t be silly” and turns to look at the ocean, striking the same pose as the woman in the picture above his writing desk in the Earle. Is she an angel? A foretaste of paradise? The ever-present, yet ever-elusive God-light that appears so often in the Coen’s films? Is Barton free or not? Does he at least have a path to freedom ahead of him? Will his soul be purified or devoured once again? And the questions go on and on through the cut to black and the closing credits accompanied by Carter Burwell’s sparse and enigmatic score.

Barton Fink turned out to be the first of a style and tone that the Coens would return to from time to time—the protagonist-driven, inscrutable film of the mind. Most notable among these are The Man Who Wasn’t There (2001), A Serious Man (2009), and Inside Llewyn Davis (2013). All these films feel simultaneously personal and distant, and all have a level of inscrutability attached to high style and offbeat humour that makes them compulsively rewatchable. They can often be maddening in the unanswerable nature of the questions they raise. But in the end, does it really matter what it all means? The far more important questions of these films, but particularly Barton Fink are “what does it make you think” and, maybe more importantly, “how does it make you feel?” The inscrutability is the film’s greatest frustration for some, but also its greatest strength.

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