Even if the somewhat self-absorbed plotline of a playwright unable to write a wrestling screenplay due to personal eccentricities doesn't interest you, the film is visually fascinating from beginning to end. Stylistically, it resembles a mutation of David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick, which in itself should promise a good, eerie, challenging two hours of surrealism and allegory. Indeed, it's full of clever visual clues that will spark arguments over what it all means. Should be of interest to the artsy-fartsy crowd, conventional types shoudn't waste their time.
The Faust figure is Barton, needless to say. Charley/Karl is Mephistopheles. And Audrey is Gretchen/Marguerite, the admired female figure who turns out to be a little less than what was desired. Barton is frankly devoted to the life of the mind, obsessed with creativity and the longing to learn the secret of life and bring it home to the Little Man, the Common Man. Charley/Mesphisto offers his assistance (by teaching him wrestling--this is a Coen brothers film, remember). He fails, but at last Barton does sell his soul--to Audrey, the no longer idealized "eternal female". And as the deal is sealed with a bout of sex, the camera glides to the bathroom sink, where it slides down (I stole this part from John Simon) straight to Hell, which is ruled not by friendly, easygoing Charley, but by Madman Mundt (the real Karl Mundt, by the way, was a notorious right-wing congressman of the period, for what that's worth).
So okay, it's not a one-to-one correspondence. But neither was "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" perfectly congruent with the Odyssey. (e.g. which one was Homer--the old black guy with the beard or the country DJ?) The Coens use these sources not as road-maps, but as takeoff points, which is as it should be.Read more ›
To be found here are a number of different parables, all well-developed and supported by the meticulous detail in the film... everything from an allegory on the rise and course of Nazism during the 1940's, to a critique of communism constructed as warning about the secretly borgeious nature of the common man's intellectual, to an 8 1/2-esque statement about the dangerous and self-digesting face of the commercial-artistic milieu in the modern marketplace-studio. At play also are a number of riddles, including an imagined head that pits postmodernism against phenomenology, a biblical dance with Nebuchadnezzar for those who know their Bible, and a reversal of the narrative order through the presence of a hidden film-within-a-film.
Many mainstream critics focus on one particular interpretation of the film or fixate on one of these riddles and gloss the rest of the film's richness away as "surrealism" or "stylized darkness." Readers who read a number of these seemingly disparate reviews might be startled to find them all to be correct when held up to the film itself. A much more enjoyable way to explore the complexity and astonishing intelligence of the writing behind Barton Fink, however, is to watch it repeatedly.
Indeed, you'll notice something new, connect a few different dots in a different way, each time you see it. That the Cohen Bros. were not more richly rewarded for constructing such a remarkable "text" is sad indeed!
One of the best films of the twentieth century.