Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King centres around Jack (Jeff Bridges), a self-centered and cruel ‘shock-jock’ DJ whose career is on a high as he’s set to take the lead role in a TV sitcom. However, when he gives some insensitive advice to a listener, causing the man to gun down several people in a restaurant, his world comes crashing down and he retreats into a depression. One night, when he’s drunk and feeling particularly low, he decides to commit suicide, but before he attempts to do so, a couple of young thugs attack him. He’s saved by a group of homeless people led by Parry (Robin Williams), a particularly unhinged man who thinks he’s a knight on a quest to recover the Holy Grail, which he believes is kept in a ‘castle’ in New York. Jack tries to get away from Parry as quickly as he can at first, but learns that Parry’s wife was shot and killed in front of his eyes, during the massacre caused by Jack’s poor on-air advice. This shocking incident is what caused Parry’s current mental state, so Jack feels responsible and wants to help the man somehow. Initially he tries to solve the problem with money, but Parry doesn’t care about that and it doesn’t make Jack feel any better about the situation either, so he sets about trying to make a better life for Parry in other ways, which in turn he hopes will improve his own mental stability. The primary goal is to set Parry up with the woman he’s fallen in love with from afar, the mousey, socially awkward and clumsy Lydia (Amanda Plummer).
Terry Gilliam is a director who has famously had problems getting films made (or at least released) the way he wants them, or in some cases even made at all. He’d had particularly bad luck with the two films he made prior to The Fisher King, Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. These were both quite ambitious projects, involving a lot of special effects and elaborate production design, which might explain why The Fisher King was more grounded in reality on a relatively more intimate scale. It seems to have been a relatively smooth production and post-production process for Gilliam too. That’s not to say the film plays against the director’s usual style though. Gilliam visualises Parry’s Arthurian fantasies, most notably the Red Knight, his nemesis. This frightening creation, always on horseback, covered in red flowing material and breathing fire, represents Parry’s inner demons and is used highly effectively, particularly in a key scene towards the end which also features some shocking flashbacks of the restaurant massacre where Parry’s wife was killed.
Moments like this help prevent the film from getting overly sentimental, as its depictions of the homeless and mental illness threaten to seem idealistic or glib at times. I did find the finale stepped a little too far into sentimentality though, tying a neat and simplistic bow to the package, which elsewhere had been fairly thought-provoking and not shied from the darker aspects. As a feel-good ending it works rather well, but it felt slightly tacked on after what had happened before.
Coming from Gilliam, the film is visually impressive as expected. On top of the clearly fantastical sequences I mentioned earlier, he and his crew use some wonderful production design, camerawork and lighting in some well-selected locations, to provide a uniquely stylish perspective on New York. Settings such as the homeless community they visit are given an expressionistic slant, with bold shadows and interesting uses of light and framing to give a dream or nightmare like quality to the imagery.
Performances are top notch too. Bridges is excellent as always, but it’s Williams who gets to truly show his range here. He’d done serious roles prior to this, but here he gets to effectively hit the extremes of his skills, showing his usual wild energy in his gallant knight persona, then becoming surprisingly lucid, calm and intelligent in a few quiet scenes, and unleashing some incredibly powerful and raw emotions in his character’s darkest moments. These scenes are particularly tough to watch now, when you realise the mental problems Williams was battling in reality. He must have been channeling some of his own demons to portray them so vividly.
It’s Mercedes Ruehl, who plays Jack’s long suffering girlfriend, who took home the film’s only Oscar though. She certainly does a great job, crafting a strong and memorable character who helps Jack maintain his own sanity more than he realises. The film’s other key female role is that of Lydia and Amanda Plummer is eye-opening here too. Occasionally she pushes things a bit far towards farce perhaps, as she knocks things over or eats like a slob. Her scenes with Williams are very touching though and help that aspect of the film work like a charm when they could have been cloying in the wrong hands.
Overall, it’s an unusual and endearing drama about mental illness and the need for selfless support. It stumbles a little in its final act, but largely it’s a fascinating blend of tough and touching and social commentary and fantasy. With great central performances and Gilliam’s keen eye for bold visuals, it’s a great, one of a kind experience that can confidently stand beside some of the director’s best work.
The Fisher King is out on 19th June on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The picture and sound quality is very good. I was watching on a projector and the were some minor issues with digital grain here and there, but it might be a projector problem as I’ve seen it quite often with other films.
You get plenty of special features too. Here’s the full list:
– Audio commentary featuring Gilliam
– New interviews with Gilliam, producer Lynda Obst, screenwriter Richard La Gravenese, and actors Jeff Bridges, Amanda Plummer, and Mercedes Ruehl
– New interviews with artists Keith Greco and Vincent Jefferds on the creation of the film’s Red Knight
– Interview from 2006 with actor Robin Williams
– New video essay featuring Bridges’s on-set photographs
– Deleted scenes, with optional commentary by Gilliam
– Costume tests
– PLUS: An essay by critic Bilge Ebiri
It’s a hefty amount of material, with the bulk of the new interviews forming an impressive one-hour documentary on the making of the film. This, added to the commentary, the rest of the interviews and other extras, make for a mighty fine package, even by Criterion’s lofty standards. And it’s not just about volume, the features here are genuinely interesting and intelligently presented. There aren’t any throwaway press kit fluff pieces, so it’s all worth watching, even if it’ll take you another couple of evenings to get through.