#5 in my Ranking of the Terry Gilliam films.
There’s a deep level of cynicism that runs through all of Terry Gilliam’s films up to this point. Yes, half of them are adventures for children to a certain degree, but there’s also a subtext of rage against certain sins of modernity that permeate them all. The Fisher King is different, though. It’s also the first film that Gilliam directed but didn’t write. There’s a gentleness and warmth to this film that is never really present in his previous films, and I think it works wonderfully well.
I remember seeing this years ago, the only other time that I had seen it, and I didn’t like it. I never wrote anything down about it, but I think I didn’t like it because I expected a more traditional and plot centric take instead of the dual drama on display. I expected a more traditionally Gilliam film about finding the Holy Grail in 1980s New York where Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams team up to do some wacky things. Instead, it’s a story of two broken men who see the world very differently, both split and brought together by the same tragedy, and how they come together to find some semblance of being whole.
I don’t think enough is made of one aspect of Terry Gilliam’s abilities as a director. Yes, his visual flair is singular and easily identifiable, his focus on special effects and other elements of design is obvious, but he’s really good with actors. I mean, he’s a very good actor’s director, and it was in The Fisher King that Gilliam directed his sole actor who won an Oscar in his film. That would be Mercedes Ruehl, and she is really quite good as Anne, Jeff Bridge’s girlfriend. But the acting quality isn’t limited to her, Bridges is very good as is Robin Williams. Part of this is obviously choice in the actors, hiring people with talent, but you still need a director to whisper into the actors’ ears about the emotional truth they’re searching for, and I think The Fisher King is proof positive that Gilliam was very good at that.
So, the story is about a shock jock, Jeff Bridge’s Jack, who, in an off-handed comment, provides the inspiration for a lone nutcase to go into a yuppie club and fire a series of shotgun blasts into the crowd. Because of the publicity and his own massive sense of guilt, Jack vanishes from the radio scene for three years, during which time he shacks up with Anne, the owner of a small video rental shop in the city. On a bad night, Jack disappears into the city and gets lost amongst the homeless where Parry saves him from some thugs who want to beat up the homeless taking up space in their neighborhood.
Now, remembering so little of this movie, I was convinced that I was going to see another variation of Mel Brooks’ 1991 film, Life Stinks. In that film, Brooks ends up discovering that all of life’s secrets and happiness are held by…the homeless, complete with mental illnesses. The Fisher King didn’t go that route, though. Instead, it shows Parry as a deeply troubled man with serious problems stemming from that shootout where he lost his wife. He needs serious help to get him to function well enough to get off the streets. The movie isn’t also really about the homeless as an issue. It’s a film that uses the homeless problem of the late 80s as a setting in which to tell its story of two broken men.
Continuing to be plagued by his guilt for his role in Parry’s wife’s death, Jack latches onto him, trying to find ways to help him. First he tries to simply buy him off with a few bills, but Parry is just too good natured and doesn’t seem to know Jack’s role in the event that tore his life apart. So, Jack stays on, and he learns of Parry’s infatuation with a mousy little woman who passed through Grand Central Station and seems to have no human connections herself. It’s really a wonderful scene where Parry follows her and all the foot traffic around them evolves into a waltz only to have it suddenly turn back into the noisy thunder of heavy footsteps the second she falls out of sight.
Parry’s sickness manifests visually with the Red Knight, a nightmarish vision of an armored medieval knight on horseback, red plate mail, and smoke and flames pouring out of him, that pursues Parry in a terrifying display every time he begins to take steps towards feeling healthier. It’s like the knight represents part of his psyche that doesn’t want him to get better because in order to get better he has to face the reality of what came before on that night in the club, and he doesn’t want to do that. He wants to move on, but his mental block is keeping him from knowing what he’s moving on from.
Alongside is Jack. Now, here’s the moment to note the vast differences between the two characters. Jack is a materialist cynic while Parry is a hopelessly optimistic man seemingly made of ether to a certain extent. They are vastly different, but they use each other to find somewhere in the middle where each can learn to function again. Jack’s only real goal is to get back to his life before the tragedy. He wants to be that shock jock again, getting offers to star in television sitcoms, and that is what is under every action he takes through most of the film. His relationship with Anne is a placeholder. He sits next to her to watch the sitcom he could have starred in and berate it while she laughs at the funny bits. His every interaction with Parry is about finding a way to help Parry so Jack can move on emotionally and get back into a mental state where he can do radio again.
In fact, after Parry seems to be on his feet for the first time, after an awkward double date with Lydia, the mousy girl, that turns endearing, Jack is already calling his agent asking for meetings and dumping Anne. His need for Parry and Anne is over, he thinks, but some time later, back at work in the radio booth, he has to admit to himself that something is missing. It’s here that we learn the limits of the one experience that will change a person’s life forever. Parry did have his moment in the sun with Lydia, but he immediately had a mental break after the red knight appeared and chased him down, putting him into a coma, and that state has left Jack uneasy.
So, in a desperate attempt to save Parry from his coma and, by extension, Jack’s own soul, he breaks into a billionaire’s house to steal what Parry had called the Holy Grail (which turns out to be a cheap industry award from the 70s), and places it on Parry’s sleeping chest in the crazy hospital. When Parry wakes up again, it’s not because the Holy Grail itself was magic, but it’s because he has the emotional support he needs to wake up. Now, this isn’t how comas work in real life, but I think it makes wonderful thematic sense in the film. Lydia has been at his bedside the whole coma, and it’s Jack’s finding of the Grail that finally wakes Parry up. Parry might not be able to simply fall back into his old life again, in fact he seems to be largely as he was at the beginning of the film if a bit calmer, but now he has help, and so does Jack.
This movie is really wonderfully sweet in how it finds the common ground between two characters with vastly different outlooks on life. Mercedes Ruehl is really good as Anne, and Robin Williams is absolutely wonderful as Parry, especially in his quieter moments. Williams telling the story of The Fisher King to Jack (naked in a field in Central Park, no less) is one of the most touching readings in a Gilliam film. It looks good, as all Gilliam films do, and it’s really quite touching. Where The Adventures of Baron Munchausen felt like a step backwards for Gilliam, The Fisher King feels like a leap back forward. I just wish, and I don’t say this often, that it was about ten minutes shorter.