The film Barton Fink (1991) is something of an enigma: the main character, a playwright, Barton Fink, is applauded by the critics of his new Broadway hit, but, after being snapped up by Hollywood, and living in a claustrophobic hotel, his creativity — and sanity — disintegrates.
The story is, broadly speaking, a metaphor for creative angst; how big business, in this case Hollywood, destroys the artist’s spirit. The crux of the film is really about the writer’s journey into the abyss, incorporating a collage of references and influences, and spicing things up with dramatic distractions.
Barton Fink’s claustrophobic, Neo-Expressionist, world within the hotel room has echoes of Eraserhead (1977). The hotel seems to be alive with paranormal power, as if possessed — its other worldly quality reminiscent of something out of a Murakami novel. It reflects existential, urban horror, with a postmodern, surreal twist. Like Eraserhead, this is also an art film, or to be more specific an art-horror film.
Unable, or unwilling, to commercialise his film script Barton Fink descends into a nightmare journey, which culminates in his inability to distinguish reality from fantasy. He ends up ‘inside’ the picture of a woman sitting on a beach (which is hanging on the hotel wall). The problem is that we can’t take anything for granted, because he is an unreliable narrator — it’s unclear how much of the story is a figment of his imagination.
This is a story about someone who literally loses it, and ends up hopelessly lost inside his own fantasies, much like the hero in Brazil (1985). The weirdness of the hotel, and the allusion that it is a conduit for paranormal energy of some kind, has obvious resonance with the hotel in The Shining (1980).
Barton Fink wakes up in bed, his lover, dead, beside him; her death is a symbolic parallel to the death of his writing. The demonic salesman, is also symbolic: possibly the murderer, possibly Barton Fink’s alter ego, or possibly a fantastic creation in his head — we never really know. The salesman is a terrifying monster (with echoes of the character, Louis Cypher, in Angel Heart, who is later revealed to be the devil — Lucifer. The Hollywood system is another ‘monster’, as is Barton Fink’s own mental state. But — somewhat disappointingly — none of these monsters are really dealt with.
Like many art films, there isn’t much of a plot, and the logical relationship between events could have greater clarity. This, combined with the symbolism, makes the story enigmatic — playfully surreal, rather than Surrealist. What is Barton Fink really about? It offers little to celebrate, and has no specific warning (apart from the caveat: take care that your creativity doesn’t eat you). The last scene is most telling; it could have cast a light on Barton Fink’s predicament, provided us with explanatory insight: he could be shown recovering in a sanatorium (after a nervous breakdown), or we could witness him kill the salesman, and escape from the paranormal forces of the hotel — having earned his freedom.
Instead, the story ends with him ‘inside’ the picture; he is living in a fantasy, within a fantasy (the film we’re watching). The film is a thought-provoking artwork, dressed in surrealism and horror, but ultimately it’s an unknowable riddle.