An underrated classic, #23 is a story about broken people.
About guilt, conscience and consequences.
About a fool, a misanthrope and the power of love.
Also, the Holy Grail.
Well, not really that last one…
#23. The Fisher King (1991) Jeff Bridges, Robin Williams, Mercedes Ruehl. Directed by Terry Gilliam.
The late Robin Williams was one-of-a-kind.
A brilliant stand-up and hilarious comedic star of both TV and the big screen, his skills were second to none when it came to pure entertainment.
However, as much as I enjoyed his comedic works, I always found his flair for dramatic acting to be his greatest talent. Movie like Moscow on the Hudson, Dead Poets Society, and the film in which he won the Oscar, Good Will Hunting, showcased his incredible proficiency as an actual ‘actor’.
The Fisher King is no different.
Directed by Terry Gilliam, this movie allowed Williams to use his obvious comedic gifts, but also let him dive into a troubled character unlike any of his others.
The Fisher King tells the story of Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges); radio shock jock (and would-be sitcom star). A man who plays up his salacious on-air persona to boost ratings and gratify his hedonistic ego. Jack gives little thought to any potential offence or damage his words may cause to others, until a long-time, emotionally-troubled caller misinterprets Jack’s irresponsible musings on ‘yuppie’ culture, and goes on a murderous shooting spree.
I’ve always been a fan of Bridges. From Starman to The Big Lebowski, Arlington Road and the underrated K-PAX, (I even enjoy his take on Rooster Cogburn in the True Grit remake), Bridges rarely disappoints. In The Fisher King, Bridges is given an opportunity to present his true range.
Even when Jack is an arrogant asshole, Bridges infuses him with a hint of likeability. So much so, that when we learn of the shooting (along with Jack), we feel sympathy and pity for him as he realises the (unintended) consequences of his actions.
It’s ironic that Jack’s proposed, pre-disaster sitcom catchphrase is “Forgive me…” considering what transpires later and his pending mental state.
When the movie flashes forward three years, director Terry Gilliam begins the process of analysing Jack’s guilt and self-destruction with his own unique cinematic style.
Jack is now suicidal, paranoid and a hopeless alcoholic. He’s almost an angry prototype of his later Dude character from The Big Lebowski. The news of the shooting has brought him crashing down to Earth in the worst way, and after a particularly inebriated confession to a Pinocchio puppet, he attempts to kill himself via ‘the old concrete shoes trick’.
Gilliam employs tilted camera angles and an odd focus during Jack’s drunken walk in the rain to represent Jack’s ‘twisted’ or ‘bent’ perception of life, a common tool used by Gilliam in many of this movies.
Gilliam also loves irony. Besides the earlier catchphrase situation, the youths that assault Jack call back and mimic his earlier distaste for the homeless, only this time, he is on the receiving end of a similar prejudice.
This scene gives way to the reveal of Williams and ‘Parry’, in what is one of my all-time favourite character introductions. Everything about Parry’s entrance is vintage Robin Williams. It’s funny, outrageous, yet… something’s not quite right. The reveal that Parry’s wife was one of the victims of the (Jack inspired) shooting is as shocking as it is sorrowful.
One question often asked about this movie, is whether or not Parry knows who Jack really is, and his previous role in destroying his life. Does Parry know?
I believe he does.
Check out his response when he sees the face of the man he’s just rescued. It’s a reaction of stunned recognition. He knows (on some level) exactly who Jack is. Even later, when Jack tells Parry his name, Parry’s reply is a simple, soft-spoken, “I know…”
Indeed he does.
Parry’s lair is also typical Gilliam. The Monty Python alum is known to overdose on set design and intricate background details (in a good way), and The Fisher King continues that streak. As Jack learns, Parry’s ‘home’ is as cluttered as his mind. Crazy, drenched with insanity, but decorated with touches of the ‘real world’. His misguided belief that he has been tasked with obtaining the Holy Grail is obviously his mind trying to cope with his loss and rerouting his brain with a new, delusional purpose. The more outlandish, the better. Anything to distract from his true pain.
Later in the movie, Gilliam even lets us see through Parry’s disillusioned eyes for a brief time as he watches the new object of his affections, Lydia (Amanda Plummer) traverses the overpopulated train station. The entire crowd merges into one massive and dynamic waltz. It’s a powerful moment that highlights Parry’s sweet and gentle nature, but at the same time sadly underlines his broken reality.
This really is one of Williams’ best all-round performances on film. His ability to turn on a dime from comedy to drama is never more prevalent than it is in his movie. Case in point: the Red Knight scenes.
The only representation of an actual ‘villain’ this story has, Parry’s intangible hallucinations of a freakish crimson horseman, pop in-and-out of the film like a harbinger of doom. In a clever piece of writing, the Red Knight represents Parry’s real life trauma resurfacing. Nothing terrifies him more than the Knight since there’s nothing he fears more than the truth.
For instance, the Knight first appears when Jack informs Parry he knows his true identity, which confronts Parry with painful and unwanted memories. The Red Knight returns when Parry remembers where he first heard the story of ‘The Fisher King’, mentioning how he “Heard it at a lecture, somewhere…”
With Jack by his side, Parry’s madness subsides somewhat, manifesting in Parry’s mind as ‘scaring away’ the demonic visage.
These early scenes between Williams and Bridges really let Bridges shine as a true character actor. Jack decides to help Parry in his quest to win over Lydia, but it comes from an entirely self-serving place. Yes, he wants to help, but it’s so he can feel better about himself.
Bridges is so good, so charismatic, that even though Jack isn’t really a good person, we still want him to be. We root for him. We sympathise with him. We yearn for him to be better.
As does Anne.
She plays Anne as a woman at her wits’ end, trying to deal with Jack’s multitude of emotional problems. She clearly loves him, but also knows she’d be better off without him.
Unfortunately, that’s not how love works.
Her analogy of God, the Devil, man and woman, is a brilliant example of Anne’s unconventional wisdom. She’s also crucial in helping Parry’s love interest, Lydia to open up and evolve.
In contrast to Anne, Lydia is the quintessential wallflower, downtrodden and lonely. But as Anne tells her, she can also be “A real bitch…”
Parry loves her anyway. Even if he hasn’t actually met her.
Anne helps Lydia come out of her shell of low self-esteem to notice the world around her, and by association, Parry.
Williams delivers yet again when Parry confesses his love. It’s as heart-warming and tender a moment as you’ll ever see, but regrettably, sleeping demons will not lie.
Not in this film.
Parry’s inability to accept his newfound happiness summons the Red Knight once more, now seemingly bigger and scarier than before. And this time, we see exactly what happened to Parry and his memories of his wife’s demise in all its raw brutality.
Again, Gilliam’s brilliant direction comes into play. As Parry remembers his past, the image on screen splits in two, just as Parry is split between personas. His amended suit unravels, as does his sanity, trapping him in a proverbial straightjacket.
This is Parry’s illness at his peak. When the thugs from earlier return to attack him (now ‘accompanied’ by the illusionary Red Knight), Parry surrenders and welcomes death as his only means of escape.
As he would later repeat with 12 Monkeys, Gilliam certainly excels when charged with tackling these heavy subjects, and more importantly, asking questions about mental health and the care of those afflicted by such issues. For example, his use of the movie’s secondary, ‘cameo’ characters.
Underrated actor, Tom Waits appears as a kooky, disabled war veteran, but Michael Jeter almost steals the show completely. One of Parry’s homeless compatriots, Jeter is heart-breaking and hilarious at the same time, much like his part in The Green Mile. Sadly, he even mentions his former life as a singer and cabaret star (which we get a glimpse of) as he laments, “Watching his friends die…” a sure reference to AIDS, still a very real epidemic in 1991.
The mental health of the movie’s characters, while sometimes played for laughs, are also given the perfect amount of earnest grittiness. We feel sad for these confused, often-miserable people, left behind and ignored by society… Jack included.
Speaking of Jack, when again confronted by his conscience, he realises the only way to save Parry is to feed his delusions one last time and get the ‘Holy Grail’. Bridges makes for a fantastic reluctant hero, and does so again in the third act.
Jack wearing Parry’s hat and coat during his quest to claim the ‘Grail’ is a nice touch. It shows that Jack has taken up the mantle of his friend, but does doing so also somehow ‘transfer’ Parry’s delusions as well?
Jack is startled by the stain glass image of a Red Knight, and even admits to ‘hearing horses’. He even ‘sees’ Edwin the shooter lift his shotgun towards him in a chilling vision.
Of course, when Jack obtains the ‘Grail’, it is not the real thing, but stealing the lookalike trinket does allow Jack to serve one final good deed, purposefully tripping the building’s alarm to bring attention to its overdosing owner and saving his life.
Williams saves possibly his best line deliveries in the film for one of his last. When he wakes from his catatonic state to find that Jack has delivered him the “Grail”, something inside his mind repairs itself, almost as though the healing abilities of the fake cup have mended his broken mind. His short speech to (what he thinks is a sleeping Jack) encapsulates and summarises his personal tragedy. But now things are different. Now he can face reality and move on with his life.
I always found this scene wonderful, but now, in light of Williams’ tragic passing and his own personal struggles; it’s now an even more tear-inducing, poignant moment.
Ultimately, The Fisher King is a movie about broken people. Jack. Parry. Lydia. Anne.
In another ironic twist though, it seems these broken people were made for each other.
Jack’s actions destroy Parry, which in turn, destroys Jack. Parry fixes Jack, who then fixes Parry, and their mutual mental rejuvenation allows their happiness with Anne and Lydia, respectively.
And isn’t that what life’s about? Happiness?
After all… “I like New York in June… How about you…?”
Rating: 5 out of 5 invisible fairies.
Favourite Moment: Parry’s lair
Honourable Mention: “Can I miss her now?”
Next week: #22 – “The hardest choices require the strongest wills…”