Not Quite Horror: “Barton Fink” (1991)

Not Quite Horror contains reviews of films not traditionally considered horror films. By analyzing them as horror films (identifying the monster, discussing the shared worry for the audience and the main characters, and understanding the depth of horror available to the viewer), who knows? There’s more than one way to watch a movie.

Barton Fink (1991)

In the month of October, I am celebrating the films of Not Quite Horror legends Joel and Ethan Coen.

The Monster: Charlie Meadows (John Goodman) begins the darkly comic Barton Fink as a bright spot in a hellish world. The titular Barton Fink (John Turturro) struggles to defeat his writer’s block and finish a screenplay, but his world becomes descends further into the inferno until he is literally surrounded by flames. And at that point, there is no bigger devil than Charlie Meadows.

Meadows represents the demonic anger behind the everyman. He holds onto a mask of normalcy until he can no longer grasp it, and then all that is left of the man is his fury.

The Horror: The ending of Barton Fink may be the greatest visual representation of the Coen Brothers’ nihilism. They burn everything around their protagonist and leave him face to face with the worst in humanity.

In typical Coen Brothers’ fashion, this moment is too awkward and unresolved to offer closure. Creating Charlie Meadows’ deadly world is nothing more than another spiteful laugh at living and dying.

The Shared Fate: Death is no more honorable in this film than it has been in the previous four films discussed this month. Charlie Meadows, in the beginning of the film, could be any strange, beaten man walking past you in the sidewalk. Charlie Meadows at the end of the film is an unleashed animal biting more than he barks.

For the Coen Brothers, we live beside Charlie Meadows, and we live because he lets us live.

— I am indebted to Noel Carroll’s The Philosophy of Horror for his ideas on defining horror, as well as John Skipp and Craig Spector’s article “Death’s Rich Pageantry, or Skipp & Spector’s Handy-Dandy Splatterpunk Guide to the Horrors of Non-horror Film” in Cut! Horror Writers on Horror Film for a similar idea.–

–Axel Kohagen