Top Fifty Films of the 90s — Number Thirty-Nine

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#39 — Barton Fink (Joel Coen (and Ethan Coen), 1991)
More than any other filmmakers, the nineties were all about the Coen brothers. At least that’s what it was like for me. There were more influential directors, to be sure, and there were some who were perhaps more dependable, safely delivering sterling films that used pinpoint professionalism to compensate for a lack of risk. The Coens, however, had boldness coated across every frame of film. Even when the faltered somewhat in this span, they were genetically incapable of producing work that was uninteresting. Their movies challenged, teased, cajoled, pushed limits, upended conventions, and generally challenged viewers to discern irony from sincerity, occasionally seeming to posit that there might not be much a difference between the two. Let others pine for the latest action sequel, for me it was the Coen brothers movies that most clearly qualified as events.

Barton Fink was the film that invited some amount backlash, arriving in theaters as it did with the imprimatur of the Palme d’Or from the Cannes Film Festival, an honor just as likely to inspire contrarian push back as happy anticipation. In some quarters, these Minnesota siblings were due for a sort of adjustment of their acclaim, a cinematic comeuppance. That grousing took place, but the film itself remains, a sharp, strident, wickedly funny take on the elusive nature of storytelling artistry.

John Turturro plays the title character, an acclaimed playwright who is lured west to write for the Hollywood studios in the early forties, asked to disregard his inclination towards highly politicized work to ply his trade by cranking out scripts for Wallace Beery wrestling pictures. He holes up in a massive hotel that has employed wallpaper paste of questionable durability, and engages in spirited conversations with his new neighbor, a salesmen played by John Goodman, who deftly laces his naturally avuncular nature with tricky little hints of menace. The actors–and other skilled thespians that are perfectly suited for the darkly ingenious art of the Coens, including Judy Davis, Steve Buscemi, and John Mahoney–are given spectacular words to work with. The language is dense and fearlessly intelligent, peppered with marvelous turns of phrase and jargon and colloquialisms that may be nearly antiquated, but also just sound better than the softer, sadder words that have taken their place. Everyone tears into it like starving souls set before a feast.

The Coens match their stellar writing with equally amazing visuals. Working for the first time with their longtime cinematographer Roger Deakins, the Coens fill the film with textures, from the imposing blankness of the paper that Barton stares down impotently to the saturated walls of the hotel room that fray around him. It’s a cliche to say that it’s so perfectly captured that it seems it can be touched by just reaching towards the screen. What’s more, it’s an drastic understatement. The images are potent enough that they already feel as though they’re brushing against your fingertips like a phantom. It’s part of the richness that lurks in every corner of the film, a splendid statement of creativity about an artist whose creativity is stymied.

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