Looking back at Terry Gilliam's The Fisher King
In 1991, director Terry Gilliam turned from grand spectacle to moving drama with The Fisher King. Andrew looks back at a well-acted, visually stunning movie…
Effects-laden visual feasts of the imagination are all very well and brilliant, but they are also, apparently, a total hassle to make. Coupled with the levels of studio interference, hostility, and arguments that ensued, Terry Gilliam found himself in the position of just wanting to make something relatively simple. Hence The Fisher King, released in 1991. A budget of $24 million returned a box office of roughly $42 million; it was as critically acclaimed as ever, but a very different beast from the director's previous films.
Written by Richard LaGravenese (writer of Cuaron's A Little Princess, Eastwood's The Bridges Of Madison County, and, sadly, writer and director of two-hour guff fest PS. I Love You), The Fisher King is a very 90s (fashion, music, yuppie culture, Jeff Bridges' haircut being identical to Qui-Gon Jinn's) tale of hubris and humanity, and features one of the great Robin Williams' performances.
After jarring with the rest of the cast in Baron Munchausen, Williams' mania here is comparatively restrained, and he is playing an emotionally damaged man obsessed with trying to find the Holy Grail. Cue fantasy horror sequences featuring a Red Knight, numerous Arthurian references, and a journey of redemption for Jeff Bridges' complete arsehole of a DJ, Jack Lucas. Rumour has it that the studio did not want to pay Howard Stern to be a consultant on the film, although he was asked for tapes of his show. Considering how Lucas is portrayed in the film, it's hardly surprising.
In the beginning, Lucas is riding the crest of a wave, his radio show popular enough for him to be offered a sitcom role, only for his entire world to fall apart when one of his on-air comments inspires a depressed listener to shooting a group of innocent people drinking in a New York bar. In short, careless talk costs lives.
Three years later, Lucas is working in his girlfriend's video rental store, a morose and distant misanthrope, and regularly drinks himself into near-oblivion. Attacked by two teenagers and doused in gasoline ready for immolation, Lucas is rescued in strange and amusing style by Williams' Parry and his troupe of singing homeless men. It transpires that the two men are linked, their present situation stemming from the same mistake in Lucas' past.
Much of the film is dialogue, earthy, blackly comic, and pointed. The depiction of damaged people, ignored by nearly all passers-by, is not the film's main focus, but ties in well with the modern retelling of the Fisher King legend. The leads in the cast are normal looking people, slightly weird, almost unremarkable. It's a mark of other movies that this seems novel. 2010's casting of Johnny Depp as 'Just Some Bloke' in The Tourist is a case in point.
The Fisher King rewards repeat viewings, as much of the information is contained in fast-paced exchanges between characters who aren't entirely well. It also manages the neat trick of smuggling fantasy into a film that otherwise ticks many boxes for potential Oscar nominations ('human' drama, illness, nudity, topical issues, etc) by using it sparingly, and tying it in with delusions suffered due to mental illness.
The flights of fantasy are made all the more potent by their isolation in a, then contemporary, real world setting. The waltz sequence in Central Station, for example, is so impressive that it became a regular event in New York's new year's celebrations. The Red Knight, shrouded in mist and flame, riding through Central Park is another jarringly memorable image. Gilliam brings his stylistic visual tics to more mundane settings, a long pull-back shot follows a homeless cabaret singer through a publisher's offices to serenade Lydia, the clumsy and slightly sociopathic object of Parry's affections.
Later, as they walk to a restaurant together, sparks fall behind them like rain. The finding of the fantastic amidst the everyday is perhaps more impressive than the steampunk futurisms of Brazil, or the unreliable, ostentatiously fantastic narrations of Baron Munchausen. With a few notable exceptions, this is not a twisted version of the real world holding a mirror up to reality, it is the New York of 1991, and no less dark a vision for that.
LaGravenese's script, aided by the occasional embellishments of Gilliam, isn't a world away from his only previous writing credit at the time (Rude Awakening, featuring Cheech Marin and Eric Roberts in a hippy stoner comedy), in that it has a strong sense of social injustice running through the narrative. For example, when Parry, or any other homeless person, is wearing rags, he can run screaming through the streets with barely a glance. When he appears in a suit, people pay attention. The two teenagers who attack Parry do so because they are angry at homeless people sleeping in their neighbourhood, ruining the view.
When Lucas has fallen back into his old ways, after ultimately doing a good thing for selfish reasons, he only starts to realise he has yet to atone when he enters into discussions to appear in a sitcom about homelessness. This attempt to make capital from misery is the second last straw.
The Fisher King's characters are, perhaps, occasionally subject to a dry wit virus that permeates many works of fiction, but the acting is such that the entire thing is carried off with a feeling of naturalism. It is funny, romantic, and sad in equal measure, and its thematic content is carried by a lot of strong, unshowy acting. Even Robin Williams is somehow manic and muted at the same time, and most of the cast (with the exception of David Hyde Pierce) are not faces well known outside America, meaning we can't readily associate them with other characters or personas.
In fact, the realism and underplayed nature of the film act against it during the finale. Jeff Bridges gives a brilliant rendition of anger, self-pity and denial, then seems to be cured of his selfishness without obviously doing anything differently. His actions still seem to be motivated by self-interest, to be forgiven by those he is in debt to. He is forgiven quickly and easily by those he has wronged, and it seems a little too pat after the build up we've had. While this is where the narrative is heading, it feels like the obstacles in his path might have been just that little bit more surmountable.
This doesn't ultimately take too much away from the film, which is otherwise very well executed and remains one of the best of its kind. It’s certainly the second greatest movie about the Holy Grail that Terry Gilliam has ever had a hand in directing.