Before he made The Fisher King, Terry Gilliam was known for his barbed, otherworldly fantasies. From the Orwellian dystopia of Brazil (1985) to the fabulist spectacles of Time Bandits (1981) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988), the director’s films seemed to take place in an alternate universe, one informed as much by myth and fairy tale as by the Dadaist satire he helped create as a member of Monty Python. The Fisher King certainly has some of those familiar fantastical elements, but this 1991 romantic drama would turn out to be something quite unique—a Terry Gilliam film firmly planted in the here and now. Working for the first time from a script written entirely by someone else—a then relatively unknown young writer named Richard LaGravenese, who would go on to become one of Hollywood’s biggest screenwriters—the director created a film that took the textures of contemporary New York and gave them a magical spin, inventively balancing LaGravenese’s interest in character and dramatic realism with his own dark visual sensibility and penchant for social satire. With this film, Gilliam’s aesthetic entered the real world. And he has never made another movie like it.
The Fisher King announces its departure from the very opening, with its sleek, modern spaces and pop soundtrack. We’re in an environment of stylized, chilly alienation, with popular DJ Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) mouthing off to callers on his radio show. Gilliam heightens the sense of Jack being sealed in: the walls of the studio, shot from above with forced perspective, seem almost like a fortress or a fashionable bomb shelter. We don’t really see Jack’s face during this sequence; we see only close-ups of his mouth, or the back of his head, or his shadow on a wall, like some kind of mysterious beast. And, of course, we hear his voice—rich, quick, contemptuous, a perfect example of the “shock jocks” who took over America’s airwaves in the 1980s.
After Jack’s career is ruined and he has his fall from grace, Gilliam switches things around. Whereas before we were uncomfortably distanced from Jack, now we’re uncomfortably near; the camera juts up so close to his face that we wouldn’t be surprised if the lens bumped his nose. Meanwhile, the extreme high angles have become extreme low angles. Jack’s collision with the outside has left him stripped of his identity, fragile and frayed, like an exposed nerve.
But who is Jack Lucas? Listen closely to his opening tirade against yuppies from his DJ booth, and you may realize that he’s describing himself: “These people . . . they don’t feel love, they only negotiate ‘love moments’ . . . They’re repulsed by imperfection, horrified by the banal, everything that America stands for.” (When we next see Jack, at his palatial apartment high in the sky, the first words out of his mouth are “I hate my cheeks.” Repulsed by imperfection, indeed.) Even after he loses everything, Jack’s worldview remains largely the same. Drunkenly speaking to a Pinocchio doll beneath the golden statue of William Tecumseh Sherman at the southeast corner of Central Park, Jack reflects: “You ever read Nietzsche? Nietzsche says there’s two kinds of people in the world. People who are destined for greatness, like Walt Disney and Hitler. Then there’s the rest of us. He called us ‘the bungled and the botched’ . . . We sometimes get close to greatness, but we never get there.”
Jack’s attitude reflects that of the city around him. You’re either a great success or an abject failure. In the New York City of The Fisher King, the poor and dispossessed bump up against monuments, limos, office buildings, and the windows of posh restaurants, but they remain largely invisible to those around them; on the rare occasion when they are seen by someone, they’re a nuisance. “I’m right here!” we hear a homeless man yelling madly into traffic as he stands in the middle of the street outside a fancy hotel, arms outstretched, as if trying to see whether anyone notices. “We’re tired of looking at you people!” yell the young vigilantes who assault homeless people in a later scene.
While The Fisher King is certainly heavily stylized, the more fantastical qualities of Gilliam’s sensibility are largely absent from much of the film—perhaps because the director tried to leave LaGravenese’s script mostly untouched. (In interviews, Gilliam has said that, after the struggles to get The Adventures of Baron Munchausen made, he felt the need to do something more modest. And although he had vowed at the start of his career never to shoot someone else’s script, he was completely taken with LaGravenese’s original screenplay.) It’s only after Jack meets Parry (Robin Williams) that The Fisher King does, for a while, go Full Gilliam. Like a character out of Jabberwocky (1977) or Time Bandits, Parry first appears as a DIY knight in not-so-shining, repurposed armor; he comes to Jack’s rescue as our hero is being beaten, but he doesn’t so much scare as bewilder Jack’s assailants. This is a comical figure, but with a tragic backstory, and his cheerfulness, we learn, is more psychosis than anything else. He was once a happily married academic, who lost his mind after his wife was murdered, a victim of the same massacre that precipitated Jack’s own professional meltdown. Not only that, but Parry is tormented by visions of a terrifying, flaming Red Knight who pursues him whenever he recalls his former life. It’s a simple but grisly image—the jagged, shredded patterns of the knight’s armor, we later learn, mimic the spattered blood and brains of Parry’s wife. But the Red Knight holds off when Jack is around. “He’s scared of you,” Parry whispers.
Thus do the two men’s fates become cosmically intertwined—a remarkable thing in this city that seems to be built on alienation. From the enclosure of Jack’s DJ booth to those confrontational close-ups, from those bum-bashing toughs to the commuters forever on the go, “this jaded motherfucking city” (as Parry calls it) is a world devoid of human connection and mercy and kindness. Indeed, that’s what makes the film’s most celebrated scene—a dreamlike reverie in which the masses of rushing, faceless commuters in Grand Central Terminal suddenly start waltzing with one another—so magical. It’s a surreal moment by any measure, but in this film, where nobody ever has any time for anyone else, it stands out as particularly alien and fantastical—a vision of a city that can never be. (It’s worth noting that Gilliam himself imagined and added this scene.)
Even the romantic relationships in the film are marked, at least initially, by distrust. Jack can’t express his love for his girlfriend, Anne (Mercedes Ruehl), in part because he sees her as beneath him, a symbol of how far he has fallen. She, on the other hand, has reached the end of her rope with his moods, his self-loathing, and his casual disregard for her. Meanwhile, Parry’s love for the mousy, klutzy office worker Lydia (Amanda Plummer) is also one-sided: he watches her from afar, memorizing her every lonely move, more a benign stalker than a gentleman caller. And as we get to know her, it becomes clear that Lydia herself is a deeply suspicious, wounded person—someone who knows how it feels to “turn into a piece of dirt” following a one-night stand, as she reveals in a brief, heartbreaking monologue.
But slowly, humanity starts to emerge amid the wreckage of these lives. If the Grand Central sequence is The Fisher King’s most notable set piece, it finds its curious opposite in another remarkable, though smaller, scene. Jack, Anne, Parry, and Lydia all go out to eat at a Chinese restaurant. In a surprisingly quiet, mostly static, eye-level master shot, we watch their evening proceed from initial awkwardness and mistrust to endearing slapstick and affection to, finally, Parry singing “Lydia, the Tattooed Lady,” as the camera pulls back to reveal that they’ve closed down the place. The scene, marked by Williams’s inspired, almost Chaplinesque bits of physical comedy, is the most human one we’ve seen yet—and the way it is filmed is far removed from the Dutch tilts, frantic pans, wide angles, and grotesque close-ups of the rest of the movie. It is a vision of patient bliss, the first time in the film that anyone seems genuinely happy.
Trauma and kindness. These are the two elements that govern The Fisher King, and they’re represented by the two mythical figures who haunt the film. For besides the Red Knight, there is also the Fisher King himself. The fable, on which Parry wrote a dissertation back in his academic days, concerns a king who, in his search for the Holy Grail, has grown old and sick. As he lies dying, he asks for a fool to give him a drink. The fool does so, using a nearby cup that turns out to be the Grail itself, and the king is restored. “How can you find that which my brightest and bravest could not?” he asks, to which the fool replies, “I don’t know. I only knew that you were thirsty.” The king, corrupted by his search for glory, spent his whole life unable to see what the fool, concerned only with helping a fellow human, saw right away.
It’s a touching story, and one whose relevance to the tale of Parry and Jack is somewhat oblique, for at different points in the film either of them could be said to represent the fool or the king. But what the story of the Fisher King does is push the film away from that tired question of redemption. Jack initially sees in Parry a chance to save himself and reclaim his former status, which he does, in fact, do for a time. But The Fisher King isn’t a movie about salvation. It’s a film about kindness, love, and friendship in a world that seems to have no place for them.
And so the real miracle at the heart of this film is the act of human kindness that it builds to, when Jack Lucas, the very voice of New York’s cynicism and ruthlessness, does something for another person out of genuine friendship. And his act transforms the world around them. Can it last? In Gilliam’s films, dreamers and romantics can change the very nature of reality—witness Baron Munchausen, whose tall tales turn out to be true, or the young protagonist of Time Bandits, whose imaginings seem to will into existence a fantastical adventure. But there’s also the cautionary tale of Brazil’s Sam Lowry, who eventually disappears into a mad vision of happiness and love, only to have it turn out to be a horrible illusion. Before Brazil’s release, its U.S. distributor attempted to remove that final bit of context to try to give the film a happy ending—the infamous and disastrous “Love Conquers All” version. But in The Fisher King, Gilliam knowingly, and unironically, gives us a love-conquers-all ending. In the film’s closing shot, as Parry and Jack lie naked and happy in Central Park, The Fisher King dares to show us, at last, New York City as a joyful place, while colorful fireworks spell out “The End.” It’s another magical moment. But whether this one is real or illusory is, one suspects, up to us.
This essay was originally written for the Criterion Collection in 2015.
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