Made in 1991, The Fisher King is both somewhat dated and remarkably ahead of its time, a rarity among the classical mythological/folk-tale fantasies of its maker, Terry Gilliam. That aspect of Gilliam's filmmaking is certainly on display, of course: the film gets its title from the Arthurian legend of the keeper of the Holy Grail. But its view of healing wounds and redemptive human arcs is far more deeply felt than anything else in the director's corpus, and it set the stage for a number of reductive movies that used some facet of its subtly sociopolitical construction without understanding the true humanity that powered it.
The film's first shot places a mouth in extreme close-up as it sleazily talks into a microphone in a smoky radio studio. Jack (Jeff Bridges), a shock jock who combines Rush Limbaugh's combativeness with Howard Stern's puerile humor. For the entire first scene, Gilliam never places Bridges' face in full view, alternating between overhead long shots of the jock mocking disembodied voices and more close-ups of an almost toad-like mouth smacking and oozing literal and metaphorical spittle at those poor saps foolish enough to call in and argue with the man. Even in person, Jack is a voice, a lecturing superego as vile as the most uninhibited id, spewing bile upon the populace he so completely loathes.
In only a few minutes, Bridges finds this character, then completely shifts gears in an instant: as he celebrates his sitcom being picked up in his large, lonely apartment, a news report notes that one of the callers he insulted took his misanthropic, anti-yuppie railings too seriously and shot up a fancy restaurant, killing several patrons. Suddenly, the arrogant look twisting Bridges' face into a condescending leer slacks, and his face goes numb with horrific self-realization. Not many actors could take a character they've only been building for five minutes and completely change him in 30 seconds, but not everyone is the greatest living American actor.
For the rest of the film, the smug Jack moves around in a stupor, destroyed by guilt. Gilliam deploys his patented fish-eye lenses to show the man's incessant intoxication, and though he moves rapidly to a scene of attempted suicide, the confidence of Bridges' performance makes the sudden transition to Jack getting loaded at a dingy, pre-Giuliani rental store and putting on concrete shoes to drown himself later that night. Some gangbangers spot him and plan to have some fun torturing the wino, only for a crazed homeless man calling himself Parry (Robin Williams) to intervene.
The greatest surprise of The Fisher King lies not within the film's style, which manages to recreate Gilliam's bombastic élan on a more intimate scale, nor the flawless gearshifts Bridges pulls off but in the simple, astonishing fact that Robin Williams manages to show everyone else up. Now, that sounds more unbelievable than it is, but Williams rarely clicks for me. He tends to veer between manic and maudlin with such abandon he makes Alan Alda's most unstable leaps on M*A*S*H seem cohesive. The Fisher King represents one of a handful of roles to adequately play on his dramatic capacity and his overwhelming comic energy in equal measure, and this performance stands well above his others.
A high school teacher driven insane by his wife's murder at the hands of the man Jack drove to despair, Parry believes himself to be the incarnation of Percival, the fool knight in search of the Holy Grail. (I suppose Gilliam just can't let the Grail go.) Williams gets to vent his high comic style in Parry's more deluded flights of whimsy, mixing his chivalric challenges with streetwise language to create fitful moments of lucidity in which he so completely wears down Jack that he ultimately emerges the sane one. In film, Williams often puts his body into his comedy and his soul into the drama, but here the line blurs.
Feeling responsible for Parry's misery, Jack tries to help him out, but his initial gestures reveal a thoughtless, facile attempt to put the man out of sight and out of mind. Yet Jack finds himself genuinely caring for Parry's well-being, and he soon comes to believe his path to redemption lies in introducing his strange (but only) friend to the woman he's fallen for: a timid, klutzy book editor named Lydia (Amanda Plummer). Holding Parry back is his devastating insecurity, manifested in the form of a red knight that patrols around offering symbolic reminders of the event that tore his life apart -- tattered red clothes resembling ripped flesh, belching fire the blast of a shotgun. He cannot bring himself to talk to the lonely woman, so it's up to Jack and his girlfriend, Anne (Mercedes Ruehl), to bring the two together.
The Red Knight, as well as the expressive setpieces of New York's post-crack, pre-Giuliani homeless jungle, offer familiar sights to Gilliam fans expecting his fantastical direction. The film even offers references to some of his other work, most explicitly Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Brazil -- a Brazil poster dots the wall of the Video Spot office, and high angle shots of Lydia's bureaucratic publishing job recall the stifling morass of office life in the director's masterpiece.
But what Gilliam does not receive nearly enough credit for is his way with actors. Responsible for several of the finer child performances of the last few decades, Gilliam also eked career-highlight performances from Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt, Jonathan Pryce and Johnny Depp, and he even managed to compensate for the beautiful fragments of Heath Ledger's incomplete work for The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus with actors all offering different but cohesive takes on the same character.
Here, he gets magnificent performances from all four of his leads. One might attribute the fact that the least noticeable of the main cast, Ruehl, is the one who got an Oscar for her work to typical Academy thick-headedness, but I see it as proof of how well everyone fit together and how even the softest touches of one actor enhanced the work of the rest. As Jack's long-suffering girlfriend, Ruehl is used to being the most malleable of the characters, forced to deal not only with Jack's mood swings but now Parry's brief flirtations with normalcy and, eventually, Plummer's bitchy nervosa. She holds the rest of the cast together and wonderfully plays off their foibles and joys and pains.
Plummer too carves out her own space against the titanic outpourings of emotions and self-loathing that Williams and Bridges offer. Withdrawn and wiry like a caged mouse, Plummer finds a way to be annoying and endearing, emotionally sheltered the point of frigidity but just lonely enough to keep following Jack ludicrous schemes to set her up with Parry. Anne later admits that the two are made for each other, and that's obvious even before they meet.
Gilliam places such faith in his actors that he takes himself out of the most crucial moment of the movie: the double date with the four characters. With a simple long shot of all four eating Chinese food, the director lets them riff, intruding only to cut the waffle with some hilariously Kurosawa-esque transition wipes and the occasional closer shot of Jack and Anne whispering comments on how Parry is doing with Lydia. The scene initially works as riotous comedy, Jack and Anne doing their best to keep a straight face as Parry and Lydia awkwardly handle the food, slurp, burp and never finish a tentative attempt at conversation. As the dinner wears on, though, the mood relaxes, and we see Parry start to charm Lydia, and soon the light feeling spreads even to Jack: Sheila O'Malley pointed out a lovely, underplayed moment of Jack gently pulling down Anne's loose bra strap and kissing her lightly on the shoulder as Parry sings a half-romantic, half-bawdy ode to his love.
Compare this plainer, more realistic view of romance and romanticism to the lofty, self-consuming varieties found in Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, even, to an extent, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Though that style creeps in with the vignettes involving the Red Knight, The Fisher King deals in lilting but painfully tangible visions of love. Parry's reverie in Grand Central Terminal turns the place into a giant dance hall, but beneath the gorgeous image of the expansive transit station bathed in angelic light is the harsh sight of the ragged Parry chasing a love that keeps getting farther away. When he finally gets to confess his feelings for Lydia, he must first overcome the uneasy suggestion that he's a stalker. There's a thin line between love at first sight and obsession, but Williams manages to find himself on the right side of the divide with a gorgeous speech that turns his microscopic detail of her life into a love letter. Insecure but harmless people like Parry cannot just ask someone out: they have to get to know the person and learn her quirks and likes and worries first. The innocence of his delivery threatens to bring me to tears as much as it does Lydia. And have the words "Shut up" ever been so gentle and warm?
That light approach floats the film through potential pitfalls, such as its wafer-thin view of homelessness in post-Reagan America. The two most prominent homeless people in the film, Parry and a cabaret queen played by Michael Jeter, both found themselves crazed and homeless not because of deep-rooted psychological issues or economic duress but because of major traumas that broke them. One could argue this is an attempt to prove that anyone can wind up on the streets given the right circumstances, but it also presents a narrow-minded view of the horrors of homelessness. Yet Gilliam does not trade on the idea that a bum can teach a yuppie to find himself, at least not without reciprocating that moral instruction in turn. The beauty of The Fisher King is that all its major characters help the others in some way instead of any one person unlocking a moral truth. For example: Anne nurses Jack during his dark years, agrees to help Parry and softens up the frosty Lydia to deal with people. In turn, she gets a moment to reflect upon the one-sided nature of her relationship with Jack from Parry.
The first cries of "Forgive me!" in the film are ironic, the drunken ramblings of a cocksure asshole chanting the catchphrase that will make him millions. Later, when that sitcom makes it to air, they're farcical. But the idea of forgiveness forms the core of the film: Jack needs forgiveness for the consequences of his shock jock confrontations, while Parry needs to forgive himself for living while his wife died and mourn her properly. Thus, the role of the Fool and King in the film's frequent allusions to the myth alter routinely: each sees the other for who he really is and hold the key to the other's redemption. The paths back to humanity are twisted and gnarled, and when both Parry and Jack suffer setbacks the haunted looks in their eyes can rip out heartstrings.
For all the film's mordant, Gilliam-esque comedy -- Jack gets back into show-biz late in the film, only to be pitched on a sitcom about the homeless that "won't be depressing" -- The Fisher King stands as the most touching movie the director ever made, an underrated actors' showcase that does not want for visual acuity. From the dawning horror on Bridges' face as his hand glides up from below frame in a vain attempt to cover his gaping mouth at the start to Williams' disturbing look of peace when thugs attack him, the actors always find ways to surprise us with this movie. It may be disjointed, but The Fisher King belongs on the list of unappreciated '90s movies along with another transcendent movie (also starring Bridges) about redemption and reconnecting the disconnected to humanity: Peter Weir's Fearless.