Barton Fink still strange and textured in new Blu-ray

The Coen brother’s fourth film, and their first financed by a major Hollywood studio, may just be their weirdest. It’s outrageous, surreal, occasionally gross, and at times screamingly funny. Much of the story is never explained. It’s one of their best.

That Barton Fink is the Coen’s first Hollywood film seems appropriate, because the movie is set in the Hollywood of the early 1940s. That was the height of the studio era, when giant movie factories like MGM kept stars, directors, screenwriters, and others under long-term, exclusive contracts.

Barton Fink (John Turturro) is one of those talented serfs. When we meet him, he’s the new genius of the New York stage. His agent convinces him to sign a contract with Capital Studios (a fictitious studio, clearly modelled after MGM, that also turned up in the Coen’s Hail, Caesar!)

Fink is hardly a likeable person. He sees himself as a brilliant artist who must struggle to help the common man – whom he imagines through a prism of clichés. He thinks Hollywood is beneath him. He talks but doesn’t listen. He’s as pretentious as a bad college professor.

For reasons that are never explained, he moves into a rundown residency hotel (he could easily afford something much, much better). The walls are thin, and the wallpaper is peeling off.

He sits in this horrible room, typing away on his first assignment – a wrestling picture for Wallace Beery. He knows nothing about wrestling and little about movies.

Here the Coen brothers prove they know plenty about writer’s block. Every little sound from the next room, every mosquito, and even the wallpaper peeling off, with glue oozing down the wall and onto the bed, distracts him from his writing.

He succeeds in befriending his neighbor Charlie, played by John Goodman with a combination of folksy charm and deep menace. Fink sees his new friend as the common man he wants to write about, but he’s so caught up in himself that he won’t listen to what Charlie has to say. Their scenes together are among the funniest in the movie.

There’s more to the excellent cast. Michael Lerner gives a very funny role as a studio head. John Mahoney plays a once-great southern novelist turned to drink by the studio system, and Judy Davis plays the novelist’s long-suffering assistant/lover. And Coen regular Steve Buscemi turns up as the hotel’s only bellboy.

Things get very weird and dark in the second half. You should expect that with the Coens.

How It Looks

Barton Fink is a film filled with textures. These include wallpaper (on and off the wall), blankets, sweat, and thick, gooey, dripping liquids. Much of it looks grotesque and ugly.

Kino Lorber’s transfer, presented here in 1080p, captures Roger Deakins’ expressionistic, squirm-inducing imagery. But it also captures the film’s occasional beauty, such as sunlight coming through a window.

The image is pillarboxed to what looks like 1.66×1 – an unusual aspect ratio for an American feature. According to IMDB, the film can be shown properly at either 1.85 or 1.66. Kino’s packaging incorrectly gives the aspect ratio as 2.35×1.

Either way, it looked great.

How It Sounds

This is a film of small, tiny, often strange sounds. The disc’s lossless, DTS-HD Master Audio reproduces them flawlessly. This two-track stereo soundtrack reproduces the original Dolby Stereo mix, but only if you turn on your receiver’s Dolby Surround option.

There are no other audio options.

And the Extras

Compared to my last Kino Lorber Blu-ray review, the extras on this disc are pretty minor. But most of them are still worth watching.

  • Interview with Star John Turturro: 14 minutes. He talks about the character, the Coen’s working methods, and other issues. For the most part, interesting.
  • Interview with Michael Lerner: 16 minutes. The actor is occasionally worth listening to, especially when he talks about Louis B. Mayer (on whom he based his character). But he often goes off track and gets boring.
  • Interview with producer Ben Barenholtz: 12 minutes. He talks about working with the Coens. Fascinating stuff.
  • Headspace: The Inner Sounds of Barton Fink with Composer Carter Burwell & Supervising Sound Editor Skip Lievsay: 20 minute. Really interesting. This little film cuts back and forth between the two men as they discuss how they created the film’s unique soundscape.
  • 8 Deleted Scenes: 12 minutes total. Most of these aren’t really deleted scenes, but longer versions of existing ones. The parts that weren’t deleted are in black and white; the new stuff is in color. Presented in low-resolution 480i.
  • Original Theatrical Trailer

Barton Fink goes on sale Tuesday, August 22.