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Film / Barton Fink

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Barton Fink is a 1991 film by The Coen Brothers. Barton Fink (John Turturro) is a playwright who has gotten a contract to write movies. The enthusiastic studio executive tells him to write a wrestling picture.

Getting a bad case of Writer's Block, he meets Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), an insurance salesman, novelist turned hack screenwriter "W.P. Mayhew" (John Mahoney), his mistress (Judy Davis), an excitable producer (Tony Shalhoub), and a cast of others.

Notable for earning three awards at Cannes, it contains elements from numerous genres, being somewhat of a comedy-Film Noir-mystery-horror-drama.

Barton Fink provides examples of:

  • Affably Evil: Charlie Meadows. He turns out to be a Serial Killer, but he is the friendliest character around.
  • Alas, Poor Yorick: A possible case, depending on the contents of the box. It is implied that it contains a decapitated head, but Barton never opens it.
  • The Alcoholic: W.P. Mayhew, not surprising since he's based on William Faulkner.
  • All There in the Script: In his play, Bare Ruined Choirs, Barton's characters are named Lil, Maury, and Dave. According to the original script, these are also the names of his parents and uncle, although in the film, his father's name is Sam.
  • Ambiguous Ending: One of Charlie's last statements to Barton is how his parents and uncle are "good people". It's left unclear if he killed them or not.
  • Ascended Fanboy: Barton meets his writing idol, W.P. Mayhew, but the excitement quickly turns to disappointment. Mayhew is an alcoholic, gets violent when drunk, and most of his latest "works" have been ghostwritten by his mistress.
  • Ax-Crazy: Charlie Meadows, a.k.a. Karl "Madman" Mundt. Played by John Goodman. A seemingly friendly insurance salesman with a secret life as a Serial Killer and a fixation on decapitations.
  • Berserk Button: Evidently, being disrespected, slighted, or ignored is one for Charlie.
    Charlie: Because you don't LISTEN!
  • Big Fun: Charlie Meadows' outward persona as a big jolly slob, which he uses to hide his dark, murderous side.
  • Boomerang Bigot: Lipnick, himself (stereotypically) Jewish, using anti-Semitic slurs towards Barton (though it is arguably more of a case of N-Word Privileges).
  • Broken Pedestal: Barton is disappointed over W.P. Mayhew turning out to be a drunk who wastes his writing talent and a Domestic Abuser to Audrey. In addition, Lipnick, who has been welcoming Barton with open arms throughout the movie, becomes disillusioned with him after reading his script at the end.
  • Captain Obvious: Charlie comments several times on how hot it is inside a building that is on fire.
  • The Chew Toy: Barton; see Trauma Conga Line below.
  • Cruel Mercy: Rather than firing him, Lipnick chooses to keep Fink under contract while not producing any of his scripts, so he can be ridiculed as a loser at the studio.
  • Deadpan Snarker: The two detectives are a ridiculously hostile example.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • Lipnick makes antisemitic and anti-Japanese comments in the film (although Lipnick himself is Jewish).
    • The detectives make it plain that they don't like Barton for being Jewish and (as they later incorrectly assume) homosexual.
  • Disproportionate Retribution:
    • Mundt methodically kills everyone Fink respects or cares about because of a noise complaint. He also murders an ear doctor because of an argument over $10 (which equals about $160 in today's money, but still), and a random housewife for being rude to him when he tries to sell her insurance. It's implied this is the reason for most of his murders, regardless of what he says otherwise.
    • Fink writes a screenplay about, as Lipnick describes it, "a guy wrestling with his soul" instead of a wrestling movie like he was supposed to. Lipnick does not ask Fink to rewrite the script, but rather puts him under a contract that will not produce anything that he writes, at least "until [he grows] up a little".
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?:
    • The film is set in 1941. For no particular reason, the anti-Semitic detectives are given a German and an Italian name (Deutsch and Mastrionotti) to evoke the Axis powers, and Meadows/Mundt (who also has a German name) says "Heil Hitler" before killing one of them. However, Word of God says this is really just symbolism for symbolism's (scary) sake, not necessarily with a real message attached.
    • In addition, 1941 is the year Barton makes his first movie, around the same time as the first for Orson Welles.
    • Common Man and Aaron Copland, anyone?
  • Domestic Abuse: Mayhew is emotionally and physically abusive to Audrey.
  • Downer Ending: Barton is put through the wringer — he is left emotionally traumatized from Audrey's murder and Charlie going through a methodical plan to murder everyone he respects/cares about. It is left unclear if Charlie killed Barton's parents and uncle. His script is dismissed by Lipnick, who refuses to produce anything Barton writes until he "grows up a little", meaning Barton can't have any of the artistic freedom he wanted from the start. And he is still under contract and can not find other employers or publishers for his work.
  • Fallen-on-Hard-Times Job: W.P. Mayhew, once a highly regarded novelist, writes hack screenplays for B-list Hollywood movies, including wrestling pictures.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: W.P. Mayhew is seen singing or humming "Old Black Joe", which has the lyrics: "Gone are the days when my heart was young and gay..."
  • Hell Hotel: The Hotel Earle is rather unsettling to begin with. Then it bursts into flames.
  • Hidden Depths: A disturbing example with Charlie. He presents himself as a dim-witted, happy-go-lucky slob. In fact, he's a highly intelligent serial killer. There are hints of Charlie's intelligence and darker side early on, such as the occasional sentence where he's far more articulate than his standard doltish persona would suggest.
  • High Hopes, Zero Talent: Played with. Barton wasn't completely incompetent as a writer, he had some success with his play in the film's opening scene. However, it's strongly implied that the play was the last original thought that he had as a writer, his script for the wrestling movie was his play rewritten (often nearly verbatim) with a wrestler in place of the original protagonist. These limitations don't stop Barton from thinking of himself as a literary genius. Lipnick eventually chews him out for his arrogant behavior before effectively blacklisting him.
  • Horrible Hollywood: The disturbing surrealism starts once Barton leaves New York.
  • Hypocrite:
    • Barton makes a big deal about how his work deals with the lives and plights of the common man, yet when Charlie tries talking to him about his own experiences as a common man, Barton insists on talking over him about his own work. Barton is even more arrogant towards the soldiers and sailors at the dance party, insisting that he's entitled to the pretty girl because he's an "artist" who "creates!"
    • Charlie near the end of the movie points out that Barton is a tourist with a typewriter who complained about Charlie making too much noise. On the other hand, Charlie is a resident and has to put up with noise on a regular basis.
  • I Lied: Charlie admits to lying about the box being his.
  • Insane Troll Logic: Pretty much how Jack Lipnick makes all his studio decisions. To wit, after reading Barton's Burlyman script he hates it. Rather than firing Barton or having the script rewritten, he gets enraged and forces Barton to stay under contract to Capitol Pictures while also refusing to film anything he writes. He also fires Ben Geisler just for being Barton's producer, even though Geisler didn't want the job in the first place, and ignores when Geisler tells him to fire Fink too.
  • It's All About Me: Barton's condescending mindset towards Charlie and just about everything he meets. Barton speaks idealistically about how "common men" like Charlie have important things to say, but then interrupts Charlie whenever he tries to tell a story and make a point as a common man himself. He displays even more blatant arrogance at the dance party, thinking he's more worthy than the soldiers and sailors there because he sees himself as a great creative artist; he even refused a sailor, who's about to ship out the following day, a chance to dance with the pretty girl.
  • Jerkass Has a Point:
    • Lipnick's attitude towards Barton sours significantly after receiving his script, and he harshly tells him off for writing some "fruity movie about suffering". On the other hand, if you're hired to write a wrestling picture, write a wrestling picture, not something else.
    • Geisler is hostile and obnoxious to Barton from the get-go, but his attitude becomes more justified when Barton hasn't written anything after being employed for weeks.
    • Detectives Mastrionotti and Deutsch may be hostile to Barton, but they rightly point out that saying that Mundt "liked Jack Oakie pictures" is too vague a description and not helpful for them.
  • Kafka Komedy: Things go wrong for Barton Fink in increasingly improbable ways throughout the movie.
  • Kick the Dog: Lipnick unjustly firing Lou. However, since Lou is seen working for him later, Lipnick either changed his mind or didn't go through with it.
  • Large Ham: As noted, the actors portraying Lipnick (Michael Lerner) and Geisler (Tony Shalhoub) have the times of their lives shouting their way through their roles. John Goodman is clearly enjoying himself as well during Charlie's rampage in the burning hotel. Fink himself gets very hammy and causes a scene after refusing to allow a sailor, who's about to ship out the following day, to dance with the pretty girl.
  • Late-Arrival Spoiler: The main menu of the DVD spoils almost everything about the ending.
  • Loser Protagonist: Barton himself, especially how Lipnick finally turns on him at the end and makes him a pariah amongst the Hollywood industry by not allowing any of his works to be produced, at least until he falls in line. By the end of the film, Barton's life is basically over.
  • Madness Mantra:
  • Magnum Opus: Subverted. Fink thinks he has written his at the end of the story, but since he was supposed to be writing a Strictly Formula wrestling flick, all he achieves is getting his supervisor fired and himself locked into a contract where the studio will never produce anything he writes. At least not until he "grows up."
  • Mind Screw: The contents of the box.
  • The Misophonic: Charlie subtly implies that Fink's typewriter is the one that's causing the most noise and is driving him mad, pointing out that whereas Fink is a tourist with a typewriter, Charlie is a resident who has to put up with noise all the time.
  • Mistaken for Gay: The two cops believe that Barton and Charlie have a "sex thing" going on.
  • Money, Dear Boy: In-Universe, how Fink is convinced to go to Hollywood to write B-movie scripts.
  • The Murder After: Audrey's death. She spends the night with Barton in his hotel room. When he wakes up in the morning, she's an extremely bloody mess. In his panic, he turns to his neighbor Charlie, who disposes of the body for him… only to find out later that Charlie is, in fact, a serial killer and is making Barton a bit of a special project.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: The dreaded "Writer With Writer's Block" plot.
  • N-Word Privileges: Jewish studio head Jack Lipnick calls himself and others kikes.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed:
  • No Ending: The ending has Barton on a beach in the company of a woman, being unsure if the box is his or not.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Charlie turns out to be much more intelligent than his outward persona would suggest, albeit in a very sinister way.
  • Off with His Head!: The fate of W.P. Mayhew, Audrey, and Mundt's other victims.
  • Pet the Dog: Charlie/Karl may be a vicious serial killer, but he does set a handcuffed Fink free instead of leaving him to die in the burning hotel.
  • Plot Hole: Possibly intentional, but the morning after Meadows leaves the hotel, his shoes are out in the hall for shining.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain:
    • Lipnick makes slurs against the Japanese.
    • The two cops are anti-gay and antisemitic.
    • Charlie turns out to be a Nazi sympathizer.
  • Protagonist Title
  • Punctuated! For! Emphasis!: "I WILL SHOW YOU THE LIFE OF THE MIND!"
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Barton gets one from Jack Lipnick near the end.
    Lipnick: You didn't let ME down. Or even Lou. We don't live or die by what you scribble, Fink. You let Ben Geisler down. He liked you. Trusted you. And that's why he's gone. Fired. That guy had a heart as big as the outdoors, and you fucked him. He tried to convince me to fire you too, but that would be too easy. No, you're under contract and you're gonna stay that way. Anything you write will be the property of Capitol Pictures. And Capitol Pictures will not produce anything you write. Not until you grow up a little. You ain't no writer, Fink – you're a goddamn write-off.
    Barton: I tried to show you something beautiful. Something about all of US–
    Lipnick: You arrogant sonofabitch! You think you're the only writer who can give me that Barton Fink feeling?! I got twenty writers under contract that I can ask for a Finktype thing from. You swell-headed hypocrite! You just don't get it, do you? You think the whole world revolves inside whatever rattles inside that little kike head of yours. Get him outta my sight, Lou. Make sure he stays in town, though; he's still under contract. I want you in town, Fink, and outta my sight. Now get lost. There's a war on.
  • The Reveal: The scene when the detectives meet Barton reveals that Charlie, his friendly neighbor, is a serial killer.
  • Same Story, Different Names: In-universe example of Barton Fink's play vs. screenplay:
    • Bare Ruined Choirs ends with "We'll be hearing from that kid, and I don't mean a postcard"
    • The Burlyman ends with "We'll be hearing from that crazy wrestler, and I don't mean a postcard."
  • Screams Like a Little Girl: Barton when he finds out that Audrey is dead.
  • Serial Killer: Karl "Madman" Mundt, and a Nazi sympathizer to boot.
  • Sex Signals Death: Audrey is killed after having sex with Barton.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: Barton's dream of having his creativeness seen in Hollywood pictures is ultimately fruitless.
  • Surprisingly Realistic Outcome: Barton Fink chooses to write a deeply emotional drama instead of a cheap sports movie. Rather than being impressed, Lipnick angrily punishes Barton for his insubordination by putting him under a contract that will not allow any of his work to be published unless he falls in line.
  • Surreal Horror: Much of what happens in the Hotel Earle has elements of this, especially the peeling wallpaper and the behaviors of Charlie and Chet.
  • Suspect Is Hatless: Barton can't really say much about the man the detectives are looking for:
    Barton Fink: He... he said he liked Jack Oakie pictures.
    Detective Mastrionotti: You know, ordinarily we say anything you might remember could be helpful. But I'll be frank with you, Fink. That is not helpful.
    Detective Deutsch: Notice he's not writing it down.
  • Talk to the Fist: As Fink rants about how he is a writer who serves the common man with his work, a sailor interrupts him by decking him in the face.
  • Those Two Guys: Deutsch and Mastrionotti — the two detectives who show up later in the film.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: One possible interpretation of the film, especially in the stranger parts of the second half.
  • Too Dumb to Live: One could grant that Mastrionotti was caught off-guard by Mundt producing a sawed-off shotgun from his bag, but Deutsch makes no attempt to defend himself or return fire despite presumably being armed as well, instead running until shot in the leg and then simply laying there helplessly while Mundt takes his time casually reloading, walking up to Deutsch, and executing him at point-blank range.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: The trailer makes it obvious that Charlie has a dark and violent side by showing a scene of his rampage with a shotgun in the burning hotel. Those who saw the trailer first weren't surprised by the "reveal" of Charlie's true nature.
  • Trauma Conga Line: First, Barton gets a little writer's block. Then he discovers that his idol is a drunken, empty shell of a man. Then he wakes up with their mutual muse lying dead beside him in bed. Then he discovers that his only friend is a homicidal maniac. Then the homicidal maniac returns and kills his fallen idol and the entire building catches fire and it is also implied his folks were murdered due to Barton telling Mundt to stay with them, at which point his employer angrily dismisses his script and tells him the studio will never produce anything he writes until he grows up a little, forcing Barton to remain in a contract that will never gain him the recognition and artistic freedom he craves. One hell of a route from A to B, there.
  • The Unreveal: The contents of the box.
  • Villain Has a Point: Charlie angrily snaps at Barton for refusing to listen and states that he decided to make Barton's life hell by killing his friends (and possibly relatives) for this slight. Barton was indeed very condescending and dismissive towards Charlie: whenever Charlie tried to talk about his own experiences as a common man, Barton would just talk over him about his work while hypocritically talking about his respect for "the common man". Charlie also points out that Barton filed a noise complaint on him... despite being a tourist with a typewriter and presumably making more noise than Charlie ever would.
  • Vomit Discretion Shot:
    • When Barton first meets Mayhew, the writer is in the bathroom vomiting.
    • After seeing Audrey's body, Charlie goes to the bathroom to throw up, but the actual shot is not seen (partly because Charlie was faking his reaction, since he was the one who murdered Audrey and would not have thrown up in reaction to seeing her body).
  • Wham Line: The very last line of the movie. When Fink calls the woman at the beach very beautiful and asks if she's in pictures, she replies "Don't be silly." This could be interpreted to mean that the best things do not belong in the pictures. That she's too beautiful for Hollywood and, consequently, that Fink's writing is too good for it. Hollywood is not the shining city on a hill and the ultimate goal of any writer as he saw it; it is a sleazy and uncreative place, more interested in money than art. The woman is better off on the modest beach, and Fink would have been better off staying on Broadway.
  • Wide-Eyed Idealist: Barton and his belief in the common man. Later, Charlie points out that Barton never actually listens to other people. He does not know the first thing about common men.
  • Would Hit a Girl:
    • Mayhew physically abuses Audrey.
    • Charlie killed Audrey and other women.
  • Writer's Block: The movie is about a writer suffering from writer's block, written while the Coens themselves struggled with Miller's Crossing.
  • Writer's Block Montage: Given that this is about a writer struggling to write a screenplay, this is inevitable.
  • Writers Suck:
    • Ben Geisler certainly thinks so. He once suggested that Fink find another writer to consult by throwing a rock hard; he will hit one.
    • Fink himself is a self-pitying, pompous hypocrite and a one-trick pony as a writer.
    • W.P. Mayhew is, as Geisler put it, a souse whose later novels are mostly hack jobs ghost-written for him by his secretary/mistress.