BARTON FINK: The Coen Brothers’ Classic is Given the Kino Lorber Treatment [Blu-review]

A film about a playwright suffering from writer’s block, Barton Fink was written by the Coen Brothers while they themselves were suffering from the very same condition. While successful in their main aim of breaking a creative block holding back production on Miller’s Crossing, the film itself was well received too, gaining three Oscar nominations (Best Supporting Actor-Lerner, Art Direction/Set Direction, and Costume Design) and taking Cannes by storm, with wins for star Turturro (Best Actor) and Joel Coen as director, as well as the Palme d’Or itself. While not as well known as some of their other films, the Coens’ signature wit and dark humor is evident, telling a stylish screwball tale that follows a writer’s descent into a nightmare as he finds his artistic integrity and ability challenged.

Barton Fink excels in its critique of both the film industry and the precocious nature of artists. A writer wants to use the Hollywood machine to showcase his talents, instead finding he has to embrace the more ‘low-brow’ content of scripting a movie about wrestling. To add insult to injury, he finds this contemptible assignment to be hampered by a case of writer’s block. Fink’s deal with the devil (a studio executive) to get into the film scene eats away at him. Stress ramps up in the way a horror film might, his stress and disbelief amplifying facets of his environment, driving him to the brink of madness, brilliantly depicted in a nuanced performance from Turturro. Rising temperatures from a creeping heat wave, noises, wallpaper peeling, and insects abound, but little is more haunting than the blank page at the typewriter in front of him.

While much of the film deals with the matters in his own mind, there are other characters that help frame, and speed, his decline. Most notable is John Goodman’s Charlie Meadows, a boisterous life insurance salesman lacking any of the refinement and airs Fink carries, but versed with more knowledge and experience. He has stories to tell; Fink, whose livelihood depends on his spinning a tale, has none due to his writer’s block. It’s another layer to the film’s commentary on hi- vs. low-brow content and entertainment as well as Fink’s inability to process and adapt.

The film has a haunting beauty, a faded art-deco style of the 1930s/40s, effectively warped to show a creeping madness that feels Lynchian at times, a brilliant result of the first collaboration between D.P. Roger Deakins and the Coens. As you’d expect, the Coens fire off plenty of satirical jabs at writing and the film industry in general, early roots for something they would explore to greater effect in Hail, Caesar! To their credit, they craft sympathy for the artist amid his struggle with profit vs. creativity, but his punishment is deserved. It’s a cautionary tale as an artist is consumed by disillusionment and despondency from a path he chose himself.

The Package

The transfer is solid, rather than stunning. Detail and contrast are good but colors are a little murky, which takes a little definition away from the image; but it’s certainly the best presentation of the film I’ve encountered. Special features include:

  • Interview with Star John Turturro: More of a recording of Turturro reminiscing than being interviewed, which is still delightful to watch. He recalls how he prepped for the role, the changes it made to his life, experiences with the Coens, production details, and the film’s reception at Cannes.
  • Interview with actor Michael Lerner: A featurette that captures much of the actor’s character. A funny and frank discussion that gets quite deep at times.
  • Interview with Producer Ben Barenholtz: A somewhat restrained interview; nonetheless he gives some details on working with the Coens and the process of approaching Barton Fink while Miller’s Crossing was stalling.
  • Interview with Composer Carter Burwell: A rather interesting piece on the importance of music, and also sound, to the movie.
  • 8 Deleted Scenes: Very short clips cut from various scenes, nothing in the way of explanation for their omission.
  • Original Theatrical Trailer

The Bottom Line

Kino Lorber have put together a solid release for one of the lesser known, but still great, works from the Coen brothers. A host of brilliant performances and skilled direction are used to craft a genuinely haunting psychological noir, layered with meaning and imbued with that characteristic Coen humor.

Barton Fink is available via Kino Lorber from August 22nd.

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