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 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 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’s 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 dominated 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, shattered nerve.
But who is Jack Lucas? Listen closely to his opening tirade against yuppies in 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 a 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 if anyone notices. “We’re tired of looking at you people!” yell the young vigilantes who assault the homeless 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 hysteria 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 splattered 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 or mercy or kindness. Indeed, that’s what makes the film’s most celebrated scene—a dreamlike reverie in which the mass 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, 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’s 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, having memorized 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 suspicion 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—far removed from the Dutch tilts, frantic pans, wide angles, and grotesque close-ups of the rest of the film. Instead, it’s a vision of patient bliss, the first time in the movie 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 that haunt the film. For besides the Red Knight, we also have the Fisher King himself. The fable, which Parry wrote a dissertation on 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. When Gilliam’s U.S. distributor on that last film attempted to recut it before its release, they removed 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 place of happiness, as 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.
Bilge Ebiri reviews and writes about film for New York magazine. His work can also be found in Rolling Stone, Bloomberg Businessweek, the Nashville Scene, and elsewhere.
Robin Williams’s suicide last August kicked off the latest round of handwringing over the received wisdom that the funniest comedians often suffer from overwhelming depression. But as shocking as the entertainer’s death was, Williams could never really bury his mental-health struggles. Quite the opposite: His manic sense of humor—a frenzied combination of observation, left-field references, impressions, and desperate earnestness—betrayed a man constantly trying to sprint ahead of his demons, to block the path with as much whimsy as possible in the hopes of dissuading the dark force always slouching toward him. Even his smile gave him away, his mouth pulled back in a tight, ingratiating rictus that could be read as a wince, eyes squinting in a nebulous terrain between mirth and pain.
Williams’s acting tended to be split between two impulses: that caterwauling brand of full-body comedy, and a Juilliard-honed flair for the dramatic that placed the man’s real fragility on naked display. But it is his performance in Terry Gilliam’s The Fisher King that bridged the chasm between these modes, reconciling the direct evocation of the man’s pain with the humor he used to paper over it. Williams does not appear in the film’s first 20 minutes, during which time the focus instead falls on shock jock Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), who falls into alcoholic ruin after inadvertently goading a lonely caller into a murderous rampage. One night, a drunken Jack is saved from being killed by a roving pack of punks by a homeless man named Parry (Williams), soon revealed to have lost his wife in the shooting spree of Jack’s jilted fan.
Parry, who displaces his trauma through a fixation on Arthurian legend, allows Williams to use his extreme highs to probe his deepest lows. Parry’s fathomless grief manifests as giddy, deranged humor and flights of imaginative fancy; he enters the frame backlit so that his rags initially have the outline of true armor, an effect instantly spoiled by Parry launching a plunger arrow into a foe’s groin. That immediate visual juxtaposition, as well as Parry’s combination of florid medieval pronouncements and streetwise vulgarity, swiftly defines the character’s parameters, but Williams uses that set foundation to subvert expectations of the character.
By playing an explicitly traumatized character that nonetheless projects his depression as manic joyousness, Williams could temper the most ingratiating elements of both his purely comic and purely dramatic work. Parry’s propensity for volatile movements and octave leaps from normal speech into high-pitched squeals of delight speed up the usually glacial pace of Williams’s serious acting, but just as importantly, that severity slows Williams down enough to allow the viewer to appreciate the nuances in the actor’s physical comedy, the many subtleties usually lost in the sheer onslaught of his light-speed delivery. Secreting Jack to his hideaway, Parry emanates warmth at the thought of company, so happy that he even responds to Jack’s condescending “You are a psychotic man” with an enthusiastic “I know.” But Parry also knows more than he lets on, as when he responds to Jack’s attempts to pay off his guilt and his brusque reactions to Parry’s mad quests with an irony-laced “You care!” It’s rare that characters with mental illness are portrayed as being self-aware, as so many real people with mental illness are, and these minute touches flesh out Parry in ways that most characters like him never are, including the raving figures that populate Gilliam’s other films.
Williams truly comes into his own, however, when attempting to woo Lydia (Amanda Plummer), the mousy accountant with whom he is smitten. When Jack cons Lydia into going out with Parry, the resulting double date is a showcase for Williams’s physical comedy, even though he never leaves his booth. In a static medium long shot of the foursome broken up only by time-eliding wipes, Williams enters into an awkward pas de deux with Plummer as the two spin the Lazy Susan on the table with abandon and reach over everyone to loudly scrape and rearrange dishes. At one point, the two fumble with chopsticks over a loose dumpling, sending the tiny wooden legs splaying out every which way in a Chaplin-esque table dance that turns into an impromptu soccer match. As goofy and uncomfortable as Parry can be in this scene, he also starts to relax around Lydia, putting less emphasis on winning her over with overthought schemes and impassioned speeches than in simply having a good time and goading her into laughing. Though he exists totally in the scene, Williams inadvertently reveals his comic ethos: displacing his own anxieties by alleviating those of others, in the process elevating himself.
Positioned near the end of the second act, the Chinese restaurant scene represents the climax of Williams’s performance and of the involuntary insights he provides into his own life. Admittedly, it is easier to interpret his acting through the prism of retrospect, but the parallels between the actor and the character often vanish entirely. The Fisher King may be Gilliam’s most straightforward film, but Parry is a fantastical creation, even if you omit his Grail fixation and his visions of a wrathful red knight. He is an idealized rendering of the less visible, more complicated mental illness that affected Williams and affects countless other people. In the real world, there are no talismans that can cure catatonia and no desperate romances that can simply fix holes in one’s psyche.
Watching the film now, the most heartwarming aspect of its depiction of Parry is not his redeeming relationship with Lydia but the fact that the man is surrounded by the illness of others. Jack reels from his complicity in a mass murder by retreating into alcoholism and stasis, while Lydia punctures Parry’s idealized vision of her by noting her own capacity to feel “like a piece of dirt.” Even Anne (Mercedes Ruehl), Jack’s girlfriend, struggles with the emotional toll of her relationship, enduring Jack’s lethargy and misery out of a one-sided love she cannot abandon. Parry obsesses over the story of the Fisher King because he wants to be the guileless fool who finds the grail to make things better, only to become the king in need of healing. What Gilliam’s film suggests is that people can be both the king and the fool, eager to help while requiring aid oneself. Seen in light of Robin Williams’s death, the movie offers a kind of fairy-tale variation of true events, but if it allows the viewer to imagine a happier ending for this late, great performer, it also offers up his most honest work, and a reminder of why the world will not be the same without him.