The Fisher King (1991)

Director: Terry Gilliam

Starring: Robin Williams, Jeff Bridges, Amanda Plummer, Mercedes Ruehl

Like fables/fairy tales, movies are a form of escapism. In watching them, we can spend a couple of hours away from the harshness of real life. I, myself, sometimes need to forget that there is greed, murder, bigotry, disease, politics and war shaping the world into something it shouldn’t be. Still, I come back once the story is over, because I can still process the idea that there are good, sometimes beautiful things to look forward to in life that I don’t want to miss out on. I also recognize that I’m lucky in that regard, because it’s not always that simple. The need to avoid some part of who we are or the road we have traveled can lead to some either voluntarily or involuntarily remaining stuck in their fantasy world. To call this weakness would be too easy a diagnosis. Mental illness is a sad, sometimes dangerous subject, and although there is no helping some, others who aren’t as far gone just need you to listen to them. To ignore these people completely is almost as great a tragedy as the trauma they have suffered.

Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), New York radio talk show host, is a particularly mean and self-serving son of a bitch. When his listeners call in to speak their piece, Jack has no hesitation in coming up with the nastiest things to say just to tear them down. One time, he brushes off a lonely man looking for love from a woman who frequents a popular nightclub. He just can’t seem to figure out how to work up the courage to tell her how he feels, and it’s eating away at him. Rather than help this man through his depression, Jack goes through his usual mean-spirited routine. Later that same night, Jack sees a news broadcast detailing how Jack’s caller decided after their conversation to commit mass murder at the nightclub before taking his own life. Realizing his part in this tragedy, Jack is mortified and sinks into depression.

Three years pass, and we find that Jack is no longer the big time radio shock jock. He is instead a pathetic drunk who runs a video store with his girlfriend Anne (Mercedes Ruehl). At a moment when he is at his most suicidal, Jack is mistaken for a homeless man by a gang of punks, who proceed to beat him up and nearly set him on fire. They would have succeeded if not for the intervention of Parry (Robin Williams), a genuine homeless man who displays an obsession with the legend of King Arthur’s search for the Holy Grail. It seems he believes it would be his duty to find it, but that due to his condition he requires someone else’s help. Jack, he says, is “The One.” Jack initially brushes him off, later becoming interested in Parry’s plight when it is revealed that his psychosis is the result of witnessing his wife’s gruesome murder at the hands of Jack’s disturbed caller. Parry is smitten with Lydia (Amanda Plummer), whom he has never formally met but has nonetheless observed as she goes to work. He is also tormented by the Red Knight, a figure that manifests itself whenever he begins to pull himself out of his psychosis.

The legend of the Fisher King, a version of which Parry relays to Jack in the movie, tells of a man whose God-given duty it was to protect the Grail, but that he suffered a wound that incapacitated him and the Grail has since gone missing. The Fisher King sends knight after knight in search of it, to no avail. Expressing thirst, the Fisher King is given water by a boy who had no apparent clue that the cup of water he has given to the King is in fact the Grail. Jack and Parry, both being men who have been deeply affected by the same event, can each be seen as representing the Fisher King. Parry being like the title character is more obvious, trading a physical wound for an equally incapacitating mental one. Though Jack also faced a mental breaking point, the healing he requires is neither physical nor mental (at least, not exactly). For Jack, it is more of a healing of the soul, a redemptive quest. As with the Fisher King, Jack’s sin was his pride. In helping Parry, it is Jack’s hope that he too may be rescued from himself.

Up until recently, I thought I knew what I could call my favorite Robin Williams movie. It had been a tie between his villainous turn in Christopher Nolan’s “Insomnia” and the funny-yet-serious “Good Morning, Vietnam.” His performance as Parry, in this writer’s opinion, is the best of his career. There are moments when Williams is allowed to be funny, although never the running off the rails funny for which he is known and loved. Here he brings to the table a very relatable sadness. I can easily believe that I would react much in the same way to (please forgive the graphic description) being covered in my loved one’s blood and brain matter.

Terry Gilliam has always been a very special director, although not one whose work I have always appreciated as perhaps I should. There remains still one of his movies which I just “didn’t get” the one and only time I saw it. That would be the immensely popular “Brazil.” At the time I thought it overrated, but now I believe my judgment was clouded by having seen it too soon after seeing “1984,” the big-screen adaptation of the George Orwell novel. It has become my own personal “Fisher King” mission to revisit that movie. I expect it’ll show up on Turner Classic Movies one day when I’m not actively looking for it. “The Fisher King” can only ever come in second on my list of “Holy Grail” movies. You won’t find any of the other members of Monty Python in this one. It was also the first movie which Gilliam directed that he didn’t write, needing to recoup after the financial losses suffered from the failure of “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.” In that way, this movie is Gilliam’s redemption, having been handed a terrific script with which to craft in his patented style.

Mental health is nothing to fool around with. As demonstrated by this movie, more are made to suffer because of it than just the afflicted person. Whole families’ lives are changed forever because of it. Addressing it requires the most extreme care and patience that one can sum up. Depending upon the extent or root cause of the damage, or the age of the patient, it may not be in any way treatable. Of those for whom there is still a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, it may not take much for them to heal. Sometimes you have to be willing to climb castle walls for them. Other times, all it takes is a kind word.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    I just love your review of this movie, Charles! You hit all the right notes and, as always, you display remarkable writing abilities and thought provoking insights. Keep up the excellent work!

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