The Fisher King (1991)
Written by Richard LaGravenese
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Terry Gilliam is a director I can’t quite decide on. There are movies of his I think are brilliant (Brazil, 12 Monkeys), but so much of his work, even the stuff I like, feels messy & cluttered. That’s the charm of Gilliam, though. He’s a filmmaker whose personality is imbued into his work, much like David Lynch. This means his movies are polarizing. People love or hate most of them, with a few managing to find that middle ground of neutrality. The Fisher King seems to be one of the more universally liked Gilliam pictures, and I can see why. The story is grounded for the most part, the fantasies are never presented as potentially real, and the characters experience a pretty traditional arc where they get to live happily ever after.
Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) is a New York City shock jock who experiences a harsh dose of reality when his insensitive comments towards one caller lead that man into committing a mass shooting/suicide. The film jumps ahead three years, and we find Jack working for his girlfriend, Alice (Mercedes Ruehl), in her video rental store. The guilt he’s had about his hand in the tragedy earlier has led Jack to become a depressed alcoholic. One night, the pain gets too much, and he decides to kill himself. Jack is attacked by a pair of dudes who come down to the riverside to harass and brutalize the homeless.
Before he’s about to be set on fire, a hero emerges, Parry (Robin Williams). Parry fends off the attackers and reveals he believes that he is a grail knight on the hunt for the fabled chalice of Christ. Jack finds out that Parry is really Henry Sagan, a teacher whose wife was one of those killed in the mass shooting. Henry had a nervous breakdown and lives on the streets, pursuing this fantasy to protect himself from facing the profound pain of losing someone he loved so much. Jack decides to help Parry and redeem himself by helping his new friend find love again. Parry is infatuated with Lydia (Amanda Plummer), a shy woman who has no idea the man even exists. Jack will eventually learn that his soul and Parry are entwined and that he can’t be saved unless he lifts Parry up with him.
To understand this film, we need to grasp the legend that the title comes from. The Fisher King was a figure in Arthurian legend who was the last in a line of monarchs who guarded the Holy Grail. He earned his title because of his eternal wound, keeping him from riding a horse or engaging in the typical duties of a king. Instead, The Fisher King spends much of his time fishing by a river. He cannot fully realize himself until a “chosen one” shows up someday and heals him. The wound will be healed when the hero-knight performs a task. In most versions of this legend, the hero-knight is oblivious to the power he wields: the ability to save the kingdom or doom it forever. He also only understands who this fisherman by the river truly is at the end of the story.
We live in an age where several Jack Lucases are out there, agitating their listeners into misanthropy at minimum, homicide at worst. Today’s Jacks have no empathy or humanity, it seems. Alex Jones. Tucker Carlson. Matt Walsh. These are just some of the nattering hatemongers that fill the ears of the mentally ill and drive them to violence. Of course, when it comes out that the murderer was a massive fan of their content, these mouthpieces will say it’s absurd to blame them; they never meant it “that way”; they have the right to free speech, don’t you know? These monsters understand where the line is at this moment and live their lives spewing hatred right on that border.
Parry is the collateral damage of this behavior, a human cast aside by a cold, unfeeling society that only desires to squeeze people like sponges for their labor and earnings in exchange for nothing. I sincerely appreciated the humanization of the homeless in this film. I’ve been paying attention to the mainstream American rhetoric on homeless people in the media these days, which worries me every day. There is dehumanization in the language being used to the point that if you came from another planet, you might assume the homeless were some rival species to people. Parry is a human being, and the circumstances that led to him being houseless could happen to any of us at any time (particularly after the weekend in California, where three mass shootings were reported in less than 48 hours). As of my writing this, America has had more mass shootings than there have been days in the year (25 Jan 2023). The fact that a movie like The Fisher King came out in 1991 shows us the problems of now were visible then. There were already mass shootings starting to happen. Homelessness was already a massive issue that needed to be addressed.
I don’t purport to tell you that you alone can fix these things. That’s literally impossible. However, we have a model for what we can do in this film. The audience surrogate in The Fisher King is Jack. We are the callous & snarky people posturing for admiration. We’re also broken-down people, riddled with depression & anxiety, trying to drown it out with things that numb us. Jack grows in this movie by listening to someone he has reviled for most of his life, the “dregs of society,” a dirty & insane homeless person. But in listening, he sees Parry’s humanity. This isn’t some bridge troll; this isn’t a giant cockroach, but a human in pain. The pain was so overwhelming that Parry couldn’t keep going anymore, so he collapsed. The result was that the capitalist system he lived in refused to help Parry and certainly wouldn’t provide him with the resources to stay in a safe, warm place while he worked through his grief. So out on the streets, he became another metaphorical “head on a pike” used by the establishment to keep the worker drones in place.
Jack eventually realizes he and Jack are connected forever. First, they are linked through pain, but by the end of the movie, they become intertwined through a belief that life can be good and that our traumas do not have to define the trajectory of our lives. You can’t get there until you plunge deep into the grief, though, and they do. Of course, Terry Gilliam never presents anything as concrete as this and uses his preferred mode of fantasy to take us on the journey. This is a New York where the magical exists alongside the mundane. The “ugliest” people are luminescent fairy tale beings far more beautiful than anything you find on 5th Avenue.
The standout performance here for me will always be Michael Jeter as a nameless, homeless cabaret singer. Jeter passed away from an epileptic seizure after spending just over half a decade fighting HIV. When he won his Tony Award in 1990 for Grand Hotel, Jeter talked about struggling with substance abuse as a young man. Life wasn’t easy for this fellow Tennessean, but in his acting, he gave absolutely everything he had. You see it in The Fisher King, particularly in his “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” rendition. Just one of the all-time great musical performances in a non-musical movie. Jeter steals the show with just a handful of minutes on screen.
Today in America, you don’t have to search too far to find hate-filled rhetoric about the homeless or LGBTQ+ people. There appears to be big money in hate speech. If you think this ideology leads anywhere other than you becoming the one they hate, you are delusional. The circular firing squad of reactionary thinking isn’t going to save anyone; it damns all who engage in it. You have to risk empathy & compassion for the most vulnerable. The imagined pecking order of power under capitalism is an even bigger fantasy than the Grail legends. At least with those stories, there’s an emphasis on showing kindness to a stranger who could easily be seen as “less than you.” Because ultimately, no one is lesser or greater. We all live & we all die. And in between, we love some people, and some people love us, and things happen, and people die. In the wake of the pain and the loss, we must show each other love. If we don’t, we’re cursed to walk the Earth as hollow people, shells, a vapor that will fade & be forgotten in the blink of an eye.