Terry Gilliam has given us a handful of terrific, eclectic films throughout his decades-long career, but none with as much emotional depth and love as The Fisher King. It is a story of personal peaks and valleys, of redemption driven by ego and, ultimately, a desire to help one another. And while Gilliam’s personal aesthetic and his magic realism play heavy here, The Fisher King is his most human tale. The themes here resonate now more than ever, in a country and a planet divided, that perhaps our best road to redemption is selflessness and charity and seeking a connection in unexpected places, with unexpected people.
It tells the story of Jack (Jeff Bridges, doing some of his best early work), an AM talk show host who spends his days shouting into a spittle-soaked microphone, airing ego-fueled criticisms of society over the airwaves – 1991 was a hot time for these sorts of shock jock talk show hosts. It was the era of Stern and Limbaugh, and all manner of narcissistic assholes like Jack. But Gilliam makes it clear to us that these words are the prison of Jack’s own self-obsession; the lighting on the walls doesn’t mimic prison bars for no reason.
So consumed with the sound of his own voice is Jack, he doesn’t even realize when he tells one of his truly disturbed callers that all these “yuppie scum” need to be “taken out.” This caller does just that, in a scene all-too-familiar these days – but truly outlandish in 1991. He shotguns a nightclub full of rich Manhattanites. Jack sees this on his television, perched high in the Manhattan sky in a corner penthouse… and the heavy dose of reality is too much for him to handle. He falls, and falls hard, all the way from a smooth-skinned slick Manhattan socialite, to a whiskey-swigging loser living in a dilapidated apartment above the video store where he now works. All fame and fortune has disappeared at the bottom of a bottle.
This is when Gilliam flexes his stylistic muscles. The early scenes of Jack as King of The World are glossy and sharp, and the camera floats above and away from him. After the fall, however, Gilliam’s camera pushes in on Jack’s grizzled, greasy exterior. The angles are low, and the grit and soggy sadness of this “real” New York is noticeably more dour and unforgiving. And so Jack must wallow in his own self pity, pulling his girlfriend down into the muck alongside him.
His girlfriend, Anne, is played by Mercedes Ruehl, and her Best Supporting Actress Oscar is one of the more justifiable wins in the Academy’s history. Ruehl is captivating as this woman, a streetwise New Yorker whose clearly spent her life propping up burnouts and losers in the hopes of finding love. She’s been through this sort of piss-poor excuse for an emotional relationship before, but what else is she supposed to do? She accepts it. Ruehl does it all in her appearance – a little too bronze, a little too cheetah-print and hair product – and her far off gazes at Jack, who barely bothers to notice her while spiraling deeper into the hole of his own misery.
One night, Jack’s bender takes him to the bay where he plans on killing himself. But he is interrupted by a couple of kids in a jeep who are busy hunting homeless people (the homeless problem in New York was at its peak in the late 80s and early 90s). He is rescued by Parry, a knight of the lonely, a crazed underground adventurer played by Robin Williams. It’s here where Gilliam pivots yet again, and the mythological elements begin to creep in. Jack owes Parry a debt of gratitude, one he finds out runs deeper than he could have ever imagined, and The Fisher King then becomes a push and pull for Jack, who wants to help Parry meet the woman of his dreams while – more importantly to him early on – finding his own redemption. This is Williams at his most balanced manic energy and sadness, and he hits all the right notes.
Gilliam finds beauty in this world, thanks in part to his own creative flourishes, and thanks in no small part to the predictably energetic but deeply affected performance from Williams. We discover Parry’s wife was one of the victims in the Manhattan nightclub, and it sent Parry into his own spiral of sadness and eventual insanity. He has a quest, as knights are want to do, and it involves stealing “The Holy Grail” from a rich dude’s house in uptown. He pulls Jack along on this quest, and Jack simultaneously sets him up with Lydia, the clumsy oddball he’s smitten with played by Amanda Plummer.
The most beautiful moment takes place in Grand Central Station, when Parry follows Lydia though the bustling midday crowd. Out of nowhere, the clock in the center of the station transforms into a disco ball, and music plays, and everyone dances with one another while Parry and Lydia glide through their movements. It’s a beautiful moment; a flourish, but a flourish that taps into the spirit of the entire film. There is love to be found between everyone, even between the two people in this moment who are not embraced in dance. They just don’t know it yet.
The Fisher King gradually evolves as Jack finds success again, but is sick to his stomach after leaving Anne and his life of sadness behind. It was a life of misery and near poverty, but it was full of love, and Jack only understands this once he is momentarily pushed back into the Manhattan high rise. By the time he figures this out, however, Pary has had another run in with “The Red Knight,” a monstrous demon knight of his imagination who resembles the blood spatter of his wife form the nightclub. He has a breakdown, and is left to die after an attack. The only thing that seems to have the power to pull him out of his coma is that Holy Grail.
Only it isn’t the Holy Grail, it’s the fact Jack has to retrieve it. The selflessness of the act is the important thing here, not the artifact itself. And that is what’s at the core of The Fisher King. No matter the different lives we all lead, or the despair we suffer, someone else exists on the opposite end of the spectrum, and their pain an suffering is just as palpable, maybe even more so, than ours. This is a film about understanding the other side, and what it means to truly care about another individual. It’s a powerful theme, a heavy and clear theme, and one defined to near perfection by Gilliam, screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, and the wonderful performances.