The Fisher King captures Gilliam’s spirit more than his craft, his heart more than his aesthetic.
Coming off the production nightmare that was The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Terry Gilliam sought to make a more stripped-down film. Working from a powerful script from screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, Gilliam succeeded in making a movie that would seem tame in comparison to the rest of his filmography. But his unique touch was still present, albeit manifesting in less all-encompassing ways.
The Fisher King begins with a prologue that’s purposely uncharacteristic of Gilliam’s usual visual quirks. Establishing the tale’s protagonist Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), a shock-jock radio DJ and pseudo-celebrity, it feels like Gilliam toying around with the cinematic aesthetic of his peers. The loping, God’s-eye-view camera descending upon Jack’s studio, obscuring his face to put the focus on his slick, commanding voice, implies Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio as lensed by Martin Scorsese’s Catholic guilt.
Gilliam presents in Jack a silver-tongued misanthrope who hates people so much he hides from them, whether behind the anonymous power of his microphone or the tinted windows of the limousine he rides to and from work. Jack’s on the cusp of landing a big TV job, of putting his face into the public consciousness beyond just his voice, but one day, he pushes his anti-yuppie rhetoric too far with a loyal listener who takes Jack’s vitriol and makes it real, walking into a trendy Manhattan restaurant and murdering several people with a shotgun.
Three years later and Jack is far away from the ivory tower he once built for himself. Now he’s an alcoholic living with his girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl, who won an Oscar for the film) and working at the video store she owns. He’s obviously haunted by the massacre acted out under his influence, but he doesn’t see his actions as the root cause. In Jack’s mind he just pushed a little too far that one day and can’t understand why there isn’t some tangible way for him to pay his moral reparations and get his life back.
Enter Parry (Robin Williams), a mentally-unstable homeless man who believes himself to be an Arthurian knight searching for the Holy Grail. More than an anachronistic quasi-callback to Gilliam’s debut film, Parry (who saves Jack from some violent youths who think he’s also a vagrant) is presented as Jack’s guilt made flesh. Parry used to be a professor, but his wife was one of Jack’s listener’s victims. The grisly sight of her death fractured his sanity, and now the bloody red memory of her demise appears to Parry as a haunting, red knight on horseback, an arch-Gilliam creation that appears whenever Parry comes close to shaking off the fog of delusion.
Jack sees Parry as the sign he’s been waiting for. Rather than relate to Parry as a person, he sees little more than an opportunity to make amends with the universe, to put the past behind him and get over his guilt. After trying to settle his karmic debt with cash and denying Parry’s request to help him find the grail, Jack decides to play matchmaker and help Parry find love with Lydia (Amanda Plummer), a woman Parry has been stalking for quite some time. So what begins as a strange urban fantasy film devolves into something of a romantic comedy, one with enough heart to support the sudden shift in genre.
See, Gilliam films late ‘80s New York City as two separate worlds. Jack’s New York, where people with money purposefully steal themselves away from the less fortunate, is sterile and sparse, but the NYC Parry lives in feels like something out of myth. It’s here that Gilliam flexes his boundless imagination, parking the camera at all manner of oddly close angles and making Parry’s delusion feel real. But the film’s pleasures don’t lie in the flourishes of visual whimsy that by this time feel rote for Gilliam. Rather, they exist in the touching humanism with which the characters are portrayed and realized.
Jack and Parry are two people whose worlds were turned upside down, but Jack was the cause of his own destruction while Parry was an innocent bystander. The two feel like caustic binaries of how mainstream society views those who’ve fallen on hard times. But Gilliam doesn’t treat either as being more or less deserving of redemption or reformation. When Jack treats helping Parry as a means to an end, there’s no traction, but when he loses himself in actually caring about another person, he begins to grow, albeit it slowly.
In a lesser film, their relationship and ensuing catharsis would feel on the nose and more than a little twee, but between Bridges and Williams, the two characters feel like twin portraits of the ways in which modern society conspires to drag people down. For Jack, it’s his own cynicism holding him back and being weaponized against those around him and for Parry, it’s the harsh realities of urban living grinding against his basic decency. Gilliam had already made films that were complex and visually stunning, and would in the future make movies more vital to the zeitgeist, but The Fisher King remains his most personally stirring. It’s a film that captures Gilliam’s spirit more than his craft, his heart more than his aesthetic.