The films of the Coen brothers present strangely familiar yet bizarre and inexplicable characters. Just as their films subvert conventions, their protagonists are average people driven to extremes, and frequently exaggerated and surreal extremes. Although the Coens’ films typically defy genre, this characterization is clearly influenced by the classic noir loser – an ordinary man who sees an opportunity to advance his life, often immorally, only to find himself the victim of fate. The noir loser is, fundamentally, the common man out of his element, losing control. This common man loser may be seen in Coen characters Barton Fink, Jerry Lundegaard, Ed Crane, H.I. McDunnough, and more; the difference in these characters being how they handle their escalating, unfamiliar situations. Fittingly, this “common man,” is Barton Fink’s subject of choice, but, in reality, he knows nothing about him. In Barton Fink (1991), the Coens employ the archetype of the noir loser to explore the character in a surreal setting and delve into the “life of the mind” in turmoil.
Not every noir protagonist can be as principled and tough as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. The alternative is the noir loser, as exemplified in characters such as Walter Neff in Double Indemnity. The noir loser is initially an innocent man whose life is marked by a lack of great expectations. Given the opportunity, he will abandon his mundane former life and morals to pursue wealth, success, or women – whatever seems more inviting than his current world. This noir loser succumbs to the manipulations and seductions of lying femme fatales and disregards, even denies, the reality of this manipulation. With Barton Fink, the Coen brothers remove the femme fatale aspect and merely have Barton fall victim to his greed for success and a new life writing for the pictures. It should be noted that the noir loser would seemingly live an ordinary life, free of stress and danger, were it not for his decision to attempt to change his lot in life.
Barton Fink is the story of naïve and idealistic Jewish playwright whose recent success in New York has led to an offer to write scripts for a major production company in Hollywood. Barton (John Turturro) jumps at the chance to build upon his stage success and moves into a dingy Hollywood hotel, the Hotel Earle. Given the task of writing the script for a Wallace Beery wrestling picture, a subject with which he has no experience, Barton begins suffering from severe writer’s block. His hotel surroundings quickly begin to mimic his struggles and become a manifestation of his personal mental hell. Unfortunately, Barton has no one to turn to in L.A., so he unleashes his problems on his hotel neighbor, an insurance salesman named Charlie Meadows (John Goodman). He eventually turns to an established, albeit alcoholic, screenwriter and his attractive assistant, Audrey, for writing advice. A series of surreal events involving Charlie and Audrey inspire Barton to finish his script, which is immediately rejected by the production company. Ultimately, Barton’s succumbs to his hellish “life of the mind”; as he is under contract to the company, he will continue writing scripts that will never be produced.
When we first see Barton Fink, he is relishing the positive reviews of his new play, part of his vision for a new kind of theater that tells grand stories about “the common man”. It is clear that Barton is pleasantly surprised, thrilled even, about his success. At an after party, he is read a stellar review of his play, yet claims to have not read it when another man mentions it, so that he may hear the high praise once again. In the face of this great success, Barton immediately moves to Hollywood and into a screenwriting career, believing that he can tell grand stories of the common man to even larger audiences. The Coens mark this move to unfamiliar territory with Barton’s arrival at Hotel Earle and the prolonged ringing of the porter’s bell, a signal of his entrance into the life of the mind. Barton retreats into his mind when confronted with a wholly new, distressing world. His contacts in Hollywood are bombastic, brusque men who barely listen to him. He has no idea how to write a wrestling picture. His idealistic view of the Hollywood writer is effectively shattered.
The film’s depiction of the ghostly Hotel Earle melds reality and fantasy and shows the hotel to progressively wear down Barton’s mental faculties and strength. This horror aspect of the film is clearly influenced by Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, as the hotel mimics Barton’s tortured mind. The wallpaper peels off the walls just as Barton’s sanity wears away and succumbs to the oppressive isolation of the putrefied hotel. In fact, his hotel room walls are bare except for his one glimpse of the exterior world: the picture of the woman on the beach. Within his four walls, Barton does very little. He sits in his smoldering room staring at that picture, obsessing over mosquitoes, and above all, avoiding his screenplay and typewriter. His psyche is without a doubt crumbling under the pressure of Hollywood, projecting insanity even onto his last source of comfort – the Bible. After discovering Audrey’s bloody body, he turns to the Book of Daniel and reads a description of what seemingly has occurred and witnesses Genesis transformed into his wrestling screenplay. It is too literal to say that the menacing hotel and surreal events are Barton’s nightmare dream, yet the atmosphere of this hotel is clearly a reflection and projection of his psychological state, allowing viewers to share the rapidly deteriorating interior life of Barton Fink.
Barton Fink is a wimp and a classic noir loser, only one in a long line of Coen losers. He is an anxious, unsure man who falls victim to his pretension and allows his stage success to go to his head. In contrast to a noir loser like Walter Neff, Barton Fink does not lose control of his life because of a woman but because of his own desire for success. Even in his progressively deteriorating mental state, Barton never questions the nature of the film’s irrational events. Rather than question the presence of mosquitoes in California, Barton allows his mind to project and manipulate his weaknesses. In the end, it is his own pretension to brilliance that derails his life and puts him in a situation where anxieties over his own inadequacies engulf him.