Ed Note: I wish I had better timing on publishing this – just a few days after what would’ve been Robin Williams’ 68th birthday and well ahead of the five year anniversary of his death. I dedicate this to his memory and to remind everyone that he was always an incredible actor because I don’t think he was ever acting – he was always being himself.
And sometimes you have a bowel movement that borders on mystical.
I really enjoy The Fisher King. It is a brilliant film that I don’t think has been properly talked about with the same reverence other Terry Gilliam films have. It is also perhaps the best showcase for one Robin Williams, whose performance as a manic homeless man with delusions of nobility easily elevates an already lofty story pass the heavens, towards the thrones of higher celestial beings.
This is an incredible film.
Without getting into a full analysis of the film itself (which I could easily do, but I think a better use of my talents is just in analyzing a particular portion of the film), the plot concerns the rise and fall of radio shock jock Jack Lucas, played with very un-Dude-like aplomb by Jeff Bridges, as he wavers between his collapsed stardom and newfound exile in the land of totally ordinary living. In that time, he becomes despondent, presents himself as little more than a transient in less than modest but nowhere near destitute means. He sees this position as temporary until he is ready to move on with his life. What that next move is, he isn’t sure. He is deeply wounded but ignorant of the cause and nature of his affliction. In a lapse of poor judgment, Jack leaves his apartment to engage a bender with the goal of capping off his slow-burn self-destruction with an impulsive action of finality. Translation: Jack is going to get shitfaced and kill himself.
But fate has other plans for Jack. In the course of preparing his body for the view of the river from the bottom, he is discovered by two young males, both an epitome of privilege and class disgust at the lowest of the lower rungs on that ladder. They mistake him for a legitimate vagrant and assault him, robbing Jack of the dignity of death by his own hand and instead presenting him the prospect of something more cruel and tragic. This is when our hero moves into frame, emerging from the shadows, ready to defend the honor of a helpless man. We are introduced to Parry, a homeless man with delusions of knighthood and nobility. He fends off the attackers not with violence, but with showtunes. He lifts the fallen Jack to his feet and welcomes him into his social circle, where they celebrate the victory and try to forget for even a brief moment that they are not even considered human in Jack’s world.
Parry, we learn, is actually Henry Sagan, a college professor and lecturer who apparently was well versed in Arthurian lore, especially the legend of the Fisher King. The tale is about a king wounded in battle who has become withdrawn and isolated, sending all his bravest knights on a quest to find him the Holy Grail, the cup from which Jesus drank, but none have proven successful. One day, the king is visited by a fool who offers the king a drink of water. The king accepts and imbibes to find that not only was his thirst soothed, but his wound healed. He sees that in his hand is the grail, the object which he sought for so long and while all his finest men failed, it was the fool who truly saw glory and majesty without even trying.
This story is deeply woven into the fabric of the film, crafting a luxurious tapestry. Jack’s encounter with Parry sees him fall deeper into Parry’s world so as to understand what happened. Well, what happened was that Jack’s antics as a radio zoo DJ indirectly lead to an unstable caller to take out his frustrations with the residents of the upper echelons of society with severe prejudice and extreme measures. This man opened fire in a ritzy nightclub, racking up a body count that included Parry’s wife in the numbers. Parry survived physically, but he suffered critical damage psychologically. Parry disassociated from his life as Henry after being institutionalized and was merely borderline delusional before he was gifted the quest to find the grail. That was when he crossed the border and became the noble hobo we know now.
Jack’s wounding and Parry’s run parallel between the moments their lives intersect. Both had their lives uprooted by the same event, which transitioned into a period of loss, confusion, and a search for meaning. Now that their paths have crossed once more, they are now entangled. Jack sees his wounding reflected in Parry. While he is dismissive of Parry’s fanciful quest for a dingy piece of tin, Jack believes that the only way to heal himself is to heal Parry. Unfortunately, Jack’s vision of fixing Parry is by trying to bring him back to the real world.
Parry cannot be healed, not the way Jack believes. Jack retains a selfishness in his quest as he seeks to more so heal himself. Parry’s wound is much deeper than Jack realizes. Moments of lucidity pain Parry. The more rational and clear his thoughts, the closer he comes to Henry, the worse he feels, the more the psychosis intensifies. And then the Red Knight appears.
The Red Knight is an apparition of Parry’s fractured mind that comes when he is at his most vulnerable, ironically, these are when he appears to be free of his illness. Parry wears a faded, tarnished armor to protect himself from the visage of the Red Knight, a beastly wraith in tattered yet rigid armor, painted in a horrific crimson, stalking Parry, waiting for the opportunity to strike and slay him. The more Parry retreats into his delusional state, the safer he feels. In a chance appearance with Jack by his side, he sees that the Red Knight is kept at bay. Not quite cowering, but definitely keeping a distant position. Parry sees Jack as worthy and accepts him fully beyond a mere citizen. Parry has discovered a fellow knight to aid him in his quest.
Except Jack is not fully onboard and has set out on a completely different quest. You see, Jack feels guilt over his involvement in the unspooling of Parry’s life. As I said before, their encounter has caused them to become entangled, and the only way, as Jack sees it, for himself to be freed. To help himself, he must help Parry, but remember, Jack’s motives are of a selfish lot. His grail is not to restore Parry to his former glory, but to unlock the shackles of guilt that have weighed upon him so that he can return to his former glory.
Jack convinces Parry to take a detour from his quest for the grail, which apparently resides in the homestead of a wealthy man of enterprise on 5th Avenue (“who’d expect to find anything divine on the upper east side?”), and instead enter a side quest to win the heart of an object of affection. Well, more object of obsession. Parry has been stalking a young eccentric woman named Lydia (played with a subdued Manic Pixie Dream Girl quality by Amanda Plummer), and for some time apparently as he knows her entire routine. Jack hatches a plan to bring them together, in the hopes that if he can clean up Parry, put him in an ill-fitting suit and that his mania comes off as more charming than terrifying, he becomes entangled with Lydia and Jack’s guilt is removed and he is free. Free to be the real Jack. The un-wounded Jack, the healed Jack, the vitriolic Jack.
Jack sets the plan in motion and the side quest commences. He manufactures a meet-cute for Jack and Lydia at the video rental store (remember those?) owned and operated by his fantastic and fantastically impatient girlfriend, Anne, performed fantastically by the divine Mercedes Ruehl. As this encounter rolls along, things begin to click, fall in place, and lock together. Lydia, entranced by Anne’s beautifully manicured and painted nails, is persuaded to come back later to have her nails done. The date set, Jack cleans up Parry, doing his best to make look presentable and close to normal. All parties are in attendance, they enjoy a lovely dinner in a Chinese restaurant, wherein Jack and Anne become spectators to the dual quirks of Parry and Lydia, two individuals with mannerisms that if labeled as socially awkward would be a compliment. Parry serenades Lydia as the meal concludes, leaving her transfixed and the veneer of her armor of mousy dorkiness penetrated. Parry and Lydia depart, leaving Jack and Anne alone. Jack is satisfied. He and Anne compare notes and Jack is convinced that he has saved Parry. The quest is complete, or so Jack thinks.
The Fracturing of Parry and the Conquest of The Red Knight
After walking Lydia back to her apartment, Parry takes the opportunity to plead his case to her that she should take the risk to see him again. That they can bask in a happiness that has been alien to both of them for so long. Parry speaks with such passion and confidence, he successfully convinces Lydia to take him up on that chance, with her salutation of “You can call me,” their evening ends and Parry feels whole. He didn’t know that he would be able to speak to Lydia with such articulation, with such clarity. Parry has been in a state of detached existence from reality. He has been pulling himself further away from his existence as Henry. This night, this part of him shines through his damaged armor, shimmering like gold in the sunlight. As Lydia exits the scene, Parry reflects on this moment with total clarity.
Cue traumatic flashbacks.
His mind begins to fracture just as soon as it becomes whole. Visions flash, the scene replays of the night that Henry was vanquished. The night that Henry was wounded.
In the scene, he slides seamlessly into the folds of insanity. He is consumed by emotion, by history, by reality. There trauma blankets him, he is lost beneath the covers of his pain, his suffering. The smile slips and his expression goes flat as he muses on the last time he felt this infatuated. The last time he was so secure yet vulnerable. He remembers that night when everything changed. Images of the horror begin to flash like lightning strikes in his brain. His mind fractures, his facade splinters and the armor cracks to pieces. He is vulnerable once again and now appears The Red Knight, like shark when there’s blood in the water.
Gilliam’s biggest strength as a director comes from his stage and costume design. He knows exactly what he wants and how he wants it to look. In this scene, when the door closes and Parry stands there reflecting on this moment, we see his image splintered and refracted in the glass. It may not be very subtle commentary on his splintering psyche, but then again, Gilliam is hardly subtle. He is a highly visual director thanks to his experience as an animator. He can cram so much into a scene to make it stand out without looking cluttered or bloated in anyway. There’s a contrast between ornate and grotesque, common and uncommon, and Williams helps to bridge them together.
The entirety of The Fisher King is one long Best-Of reel for Robin Williams. Anyone who thinks that the man could never pull off drama has clearly not seen this film. I wonder how many of Williams’ lines and actions were improvised to the sheer delight of all on set, especially director Gilliam. Imagine being Gilliam and having to dare reign in the raw energy of Williams. It must have been like trying to direct a stage production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with a cast full of toddlers high as balls on cocaine and sugar.
But Williams is very much in control of his performance. He understands that Parry requires subtlety. Anyone else probably would’ve played him as a simpleton or feral perhaps. Williams approaches Parry with nuance and understanding. He most definitely channels his own struggles with depression and touches of insanity to craft a richly complex and complicated performance, packing in the pathos. For so much of the film, Parry teeters between sane and not, that at times you question whether or not it is all an act. Is he truly wounded or is this just means to not have to cope?
The answer is he is truly wounded, and his behaviors are indeed that of someone with PTSD. We know that the way the brain copes with trauma varies from person to person, but when we expect someone to cry in a moment of tragedy instead laughs, we find it odd. We can’t help it as we have been conditioned to believe that if you were truly hurt by something, you should always be mourning or otherwise in constant sorrow. When Jack meets Parry, he is anything but mournful or even showing any signs of pain. Parry is delusional, yes, but appears happy. Somewhat.
Parry is not happy, though. After bidding good night to Lydia, he now stands before a bad knight, The Red Knight, who has finally come to prey upon Parry at his most defenseless. A chase ensues, Parry runs frantically down the street, screaming in terror, fleeing certain doom as ordinary citizens bid witness to his looming demise. They offer no help, no shelter, no means of protection. To them, they see another strange man in a sea of strange people, shoring up to a land of indifference. Parry’s escape leads him to the river, the same spot where he rescued Jack earlier on. Here, Perry falls to his knees and begs with The Red Knight, who does not acquiesce, for he has brought friends. The youths from earlier also return. Dispatched like animal mercenaries, they close in on Parry. A switchblade is released, The Red Knight draws his sword and slashes Parry along the chest. With sick glee, Parry squeezes out “Thank you,” from between his teeth and succumbs to fate, allowing his assailants to pounce upon him and beat him mercilessly.
Parry has been released from the ties that bind him. He is free. Somewhat.
Elsewhere, Jack feels the burden lifted enough that he may leave his temporary displacement. His residency in purgatory up, he takes unknowingly the road towards perdition rather than salvation, sacrificing all he has learned to drink from the false grail. He pushes Anne away and calls his agent to inform him that he is ready to return to the radio. All at the cost of self-discovery and value of kindness he had found in his adventures with Parry. But Jack doesn’t care. His deed is done, the debt has been paid. Parry is healed after one night of being cleaned up and packaged in a bad suit. All that matters is that Jack feels like himself again and doesn’t have to stew about in a cramped apartment above a video store that only attracts weirdos and porno aficionados. He chose… poorly.
When they first meet, Parry is introduced as the fool to Jack’s wounded king, but somewhere along the way they switch positions. Jack’s insistence that Parry must be healed in order to heal himself is definitely a good place to point to, but much like Parry’s insanity, the transition is subtle. It is in this thought that Jack is mistaken. Parry can be cleaned up, groomed, and dressed in clean clothing and presented in a grotesque Pygmalion fashion as a normal human being, but that facade is not long-lasting and eventually the armor will crack and the soft underbelly becomes exposed and thus Parry is propelled into a new journey further into the darkness of his mind, uncovering cavities in which only demons of greater resiliency reside.
Williams plays a perfectly balanced imbalanced individual. All along, he presents himself as this man living out a fantasy but is clearly very much aware that it is all a fantasy. It was a fool’s quest to think that Parry needed to be healed in the first place. Eventually, the guilt weighs heavily upon Jack and he realizes that what he must do to break Parry from the grips of madness is to complete the quest for the Grail in his stead.
Along the way, Jack ends up saving two lives, though one by accident. In the end, he learns a valuable lesson about pride, fate, and humility. You can have everything in the world, but that glory is fleeting and can fade in a flash if you’re not careful to consider what it took to obtain it in the first place, and sometimes, glory isn’t monetary wealth – it can be the actions you make. A hero need not wear a cape or shiny armor and bravery is often just being able to show vulnerability or being naked in Central Park. Love conquers all and all that bullshit; this film ends on a happy note because it is a fantasy and sometimes you prefer to live in that delusion than to accept that things are not so magical all the time.
- Michael Jeter’s character is an equally tragic figure, despite being presented as somewhat comic relief. When relates his life as a singer to Jack, equating his being witness to the death of his friends to that of a veteran, it is a sorrowful moment that reflects the reality of being homeless and queer in a time where it wasn’t as widely discussed.
- Mercedes Ruehl cuts the perfect design as a supportive but exhausted girlfriend to Jeff Bridges’ despondent and self-absorbed portrayal of a tragic figure. Everything she does or says is done while walking the finest line between love and viciousness. You don’t want to piss off Mercedes Ruehl.
- Another thought on Ruehl’s performance, her theory regarding how women were made in God’s image and that men are made of the devil is worth its own discussion in a theology class.
- Terry Gilliam’s regard for mental illness borders on the fantastical, and it almost comes off as patronizing without really understanding the everyday struggles for people who suffer aggressively from it. I will say, though, he is only trafficking in tragic characters who are who they are because of cold indifferent governing systems of power. Tom Wait’s monologue about what separates the average person from himself is interesting but I find it almost dismissive about how much stress plays into the erosion of mental faculties that someone could easily commit an egregious action – but that doesn’t mean that it is mental illness or that their exposure to the destitute will better inform their thought process. Still, it is a good scene because, well, Tom Waits is a fascinating actor.
- Gilliam also has an eye for staging – pay attention to the scene at the station when Parry is waiting for Lydia to arrive and she walks in, flanked by nuns and a waltz breaks out in Parry’s fantasy.
- I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out again how the Red Knight’s design is incredible and terrifying all at once. The armor is tattered, as though from years of battle and with no lands left to conquer, he roams the streets of New York to hunt and haunt Parry, tormenting him with his mere appearance, bringing about the darkness, cloaked in flames.