the fisher king film review jeff bridges robin williams

The Criterion collection has been re-releasing a wide range of impressive titles in the past few months, with a wonderful variety of genre and tone. This month sees the release of The Fisher King and Les Diaboliques, the latter a classic of its form while the former is a well-regarded movie that perhaps is not held in the esteem of other Criterion releases. So why choose The Fisher King?

Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges) is a narcissistic, radio shock jock whose insensitive comments to an unstable caller inadvertently lead to a mass shooting at a Manhattan restaurant for which Jack feels responsible. Years later, and Jack’s life is in tatters. He works at his girlfriend’s video store and one night is attacked by a group of thugs, only to be rescued by Parry (Robin Williams), a mentally disturbed homeless man. When Jack learns that Parry’s condition was triggered by his wife’s death at the restaurant where the shooting took place years before, he feels responsible for Parry and agrees, reluctantly, to help him in his bizarre quest to find the Holy Grail.

Gilliam had established himself as an impressive and unique filmmaker by this point with Monty Python, Brazil and Time Bandits just some of the films on his growing resume. However, Gilliam had also become noted for his experimental and – from a studio executive point of view – risky style. His last two films, though critically well received, both lost money. Brazil fell a few million short of breaking even, while The Adventures of Baron Munchausen was a big financial flop. Tired of making films with big budget special effects, Gilliam showed he could work in genres outside of sci-fi and fantasy with his work on The Fisher King. Working with Richard LaGravenese’s script, Gilliam manages to explore love, suicide and brotherhood all intertwined with a hallucinatory undertone which complements the natural dreamscape style that his direction naturally evokes. In the lead role of Jack Lucas is the legendary Jeff Bridges, a veteran of cinema by the time The Fisher King was produced. He channels the apathy and self-hatred of Lucas and his attempts to balance his more poisonous traits with the guilt he feels for Parry’s condition is a fascinating journey to perceive. The late Robin Williams is atypically frenetic as Parry. More disciplined than usual, in part due to Gilliam’s direction. He is nevertheless the exposed heart of the film and his performance displays his ability to match his manic physical style with a more thoughtful, introverted approach. Gilliam hoped casting Williams opposite the ultra-relaxed Bridges would help rein in Williams from improvising too much (Gilliam wanted the actors to follow the script as much as possible) and he was rewarded twofold by their wonderful performances.

Perhaps the decision to re-release The Fisher King isn’t questionable at all. Despite the twenty-six years since its release we still are blighted by the problems the movie explores. As a society we still struggle to approach and accept mental illnesses in those around us. The homeless are still treated with suspicion and, at times, derision and in the internet age it is sometimes hard for us to escape our apathy. We are all seeking our holy grail, we must all face our red knight, so I think everyone can relate to the story of The Fisher King.

Dir: Terry Gilliam
Scr: Richard LaGravenese
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Robin Williams, Mercedes Ruehl, Amanda Plummer, Michael Jeter, Harry Shearer, David Hyde Pierce
Prd: Debra Hill, Lynda Obst
DOP: Roger Pratt
Music: George Fenton
Country: USA
Year: 1991
Run time: 137 minutes

The Fisher King is out now on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection.