Retro Review: The Fisher King

Distributor: Tristar Pictures (USA)
Director: Terry Gilliam
Writer: Richard LaGravenese
Composer: George Fenton
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Robin Williams, Amanda Plummer, Mercedes Ruehl
Genre: Drama/Dark Comedy
Rating: R

Terry Gilliam is a director most known for his immense visual imagination and uniquely powerful voice as an artist. He’s defiantly anti-authoritarian and embraces the madness and absurdity of the world as he sees it. His films however often come off as less than totally empathetic. They’re sometimes cold and light on the human drama that makes deep, complex characters relatable. With The Fisher King however, Terry Gilliam finds some of the most broken, damaged and empathetic people he’s ever portrayed in a film.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: Characters are beaten and stabbed, one character is covered in blood during one scene.

Language/Crude Humor: Extreme language throughout, repeated uses of f*** and s***.

Drug/Alcohol References: Casual smoking and drinking.

Sexual Content: Full male nudity, mostly obscured by shadow.

Spiritual Content: Few references to religion.

Other Negative Content: Characters are suicidal, depressed, and occasionally stalkerish.

Positive Content: Themes of redemption, love and growth.

Review

Terry Gilliam has always had a strained relationship with Hollywood. His earliest films were low budget fantasy films made outside of the US. Subsequently, his first major film Brazil hit major turbulence with the studio and its American distributor as they requested major changes to the American cut. Briefly, in the 1990s, Gilliam returned to Hollywood to do for-hire gigs on a trilogy of films he didn’t personally write. This period of his career is one of his most interesting. Some of his most interesting films emerged at this time.

Without needing to focus on the stories, Gilliam focused on his style and direction and as a result, these films represented some of the most stylistic and popular of his filmography. Amongst them were Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, an adaptation of the book by Hunter S. Thompson, and 12 Monkeys, best described as an arthouse Terminator film. His most acclaimed film of the time was The Fisher King, a film some have called Gilliam’s masterpiece.

It’s a very different kind of story than the ones he usually tells. Most of his films have a magical, fantastical setting that rejects the normal world for medieval or futuristic settings. Outside of hallucinatory surrealistic splurges, the movie is told in a very grounded world. Set against the 1990s, a shock-jock New York radio host Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) finds himself out of the job when a monologue accidentally incites a massive murder spree by one of his loyal listeners. Now years later and washed up in a cheap apartment, Lucas finds himself face to face with a homeless man whose life he unintentionally had a hand in ruining. The duration of the film involves Lucas bonding with his one-time victim Parry (Robin Williams) in an attempt to vainly redeem himself.

With Fisher King, Gilliam crafted one of the most intimate, emotionally powerful and masterful films of his filmography. Of all of his immensely imaginative and complex films, these represent the most fleshed-out and emotionally complex characters ever to headline Gilliams’ movies. Every one has tragic demons in their closet, everyone has flaws but they’re all empathetic and we root for them all to sort their problems out and find love.

I had the opportunity last year to see The Fisher King at The Music Box Theater in Chicago where it was presented as part of a month-long series of films starring Robin Williams. The film is also available as part of The Criterion Collection which I’ve since sought out. Seeing it on the big screen for the first time was enthralling. Unlike Brazil or Time Bandits which benefit from scale and size, the big screen adds weight to Lucas’ and Parry’s’ personalities as they galavant across Manhattan searching for love and the Holy Grail.

Despite being his most grounded film, it remains infused with Gilliam’s brand of energetic shooting, surreal imagery, and playfulness. At times it feels at odds with the material, like Gilliam is just infusing hallucinator samurai ghosts into the background because he can but it feels appropriately used when it happens. Robin William’s portrayal of Parry is that of an insane broken man whose life was robbed from him. The fact that he’s playing the Don Quixote role running around New York City attempting to slay his enemies adds some visual power to his delusions. The audience needs to see how far Parry has descended to understand that Jack needs to be redeemed.

In order to do this, he tries multiple methods of trying to help Parry rebuild his life from bribing him to trying to set him up with a woman he’s madly in love with. Amusingly this quest ends up taking Jack down his own path of desperation. He’s briefly able to recoup his losses and restart his life but he doesn’t learn the right lesson and unintentionally leaves Parry to get hurt again. As a result, he ultimately has to delve into Parry’s delusion in a vain attempt to resolve his inner torment and save him. The title Fisher King refers to a story that Parry tells Jack at the midpoint of the film. It’s the story of a king who quests all of his life for the Holy Grail only to find it in the most unexpected of places. The story reflects Parry and Jack’s own quest. These two characters are ultimately incomplete by themselves. They have the power to save one another and fill the holes in their souls to become more complete people.

As well made as the movie is, it’s the story that defines The Fisher King as one of Gilliam’s strongest films. It’s an immensely empathetic story that offers redemption for utterly broken and deprived characters at the darkest moments of their lives. In the end, there is hope in strife and love. Amusingly it comes to the opposite conclusion as Brazil. Jack and Parry ultimately find some level of contentment in spite of their absurd circumstances. What both endings have in common however is madness. There is no escaping the events they experience without undergoing madness. While these two men stare into the darkest moments of their lives and come out with battle scares though, they survive. They both build better lives for themselves are better people t
As well made as the movie is, it’s the story that defines The Fisher King as one of Gilliam’s strongest films. It’s an immensely empathetic story that offers redemption for utterly broken and deprived characters at the darkest moments of their lives. In the end, there is hope in strife and love. Amusingly it comes to the opposite conclusion as Brazil. Jack and Parry ultimately find some level of contentment in spite of their absurd circumstances. What both endings have in common however is madness. There is no escaping the events they experience without undergoing madness. While these two men stare into the darkest moments of their lives and come out with battle scares though, they survive. They both build better lives for themselves are better people than they were before. While it’s unlike Terry’s other films, it’s as powerful and honest as all his films are.

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The Bottom Line

 

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

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