The Fisher King
A Film by Terry Gilliam


Terry Gilliam, Monty Python alumnus extrordinaire, and the force behind such unique films as Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, has created a new film of remarkable interest.

In The Fisher King, he bridges the gap between the fantastic, mythological themes of his earlier work and a level of realistic storytelling he has not attempted before. The resulting film weaves the elements of inner life and outer life together in a way that amplifies both and provides a potentially transforming experience for the audience. Like such classic films as Fellini's Eight and a Half, Kurosawa's Roshamon, and Bergman's Wild Strawberries, this film takes the audience out of ordinary reality, and uses the unique power of film to blend the "real" and the "imaginary," in order to alter the viewers' perceptions of their own world.

In his earlier films, Gilliam used fantasy elements and elaborate special effects to create a fantastic world that was clearly allegorical, to illustrate and satirize accepted ideas and cultural attitudes, as he did with the Monty Python troupe. In his non-Python films he was far more savage and shocking in his condemnation of the venal complacency he sees at the center of the culturally accepted way of life. The blackness of his humor was too much for many moviegoers, who responded by simply blocking out the whole experience.

The Fisher King, by contrast, although still very strong stuff, follows a clear enough narrative path and is compassionate and kind enough toward its central characters to enlist the empathy of the audience. The story revolves around the struggle of the two central characters, played by Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams, against a tragic level of meaninglessness and despair that threatens each of their lives. The parallels between their situations, although Bridges plays a successful "radio personality", and Williams a demented street person, underline the essential unity of basic human questions and problems that refers back to the mythological theme of the movie: finding awareness through vulnerability and pain, and healing through compassion.

With all the depth of the subject matter, Gilliam manages to use Williams' comic talents as well as his own to lighten and enliven the film, by providing some brilliantly humorous moments. Bridges' and Williams' rescue of a "fair maiden," leads them to a wonderfully spaced-out female impersonator who has half-buried himself on the Central Park bridal path and begs to be "trampled by a debutante". Williams schizophrenic, frantic monologues, for once fully in keeping with his character, range wildly and delightfully, creating a wonderful counterpoint of the seemingly normal and the outrageously incongruous. A running gag about the song How About You?, that contrasts the sweetly sentimental lyrics with a mental patient's eye view of New York, is funny in a compassionate and cutting way at the same time.

Like the classic French anti-war film The King of Hearts, The Fisher Kinguses the juxtaposition of the so-called normal world with the world of mental patients to pose certain questions about the boundaries we set on our lives, and the amount of empathy, understanding, and common sense we have to shut out of our lives in order to stay "sane". Gilliam effectively penetrates the armor that protects ordinary life, not in order to destroy, but to suggest a way to liberate ourselves from a construct that does far more to harm and constrict us that to protect us.

In this wonderfully successful effort, he is aided by a skillful technical crew who create a world as sordid and believable as it needs to be to make the story work, and who can blend the film's few special effects with striking and dramatic camera work that never seems intrusive, but underscores and enhances the impact of the action. Much of the film seems to have been shot from knee height, giving all the characters a mythological quality of being larger than life. We are given almost a child's eye view of much of the action.

There is some painfully graphic violence in this film. As difficult as it is, it is completely appropriate and necessary to full identification with the events that shape the characters. It is presented in all its horror and tragedy. The four stars, Bridges, Williams, and Amanda Plummer and Mercedes Ruehl as women living out the same problems from a different perspective, are a wonderful ensemble. Williams particularly is restrained and disciplined, offering an effectively understated performance. Bridges gives an honest, forthright interpretation of his character, showing his complexity and contradictions by subtle and modulated expression, creating a real, understandable human being.

Ruehl is wonderful as his tough, sexy, realist girlfriend, whose receptive power offers him a lifeline. Plummer, as the mousey neurotic who transforms and is transformed by the connection she forges with Williams, gives a wonderfully clear and sympathetic evocation of a character who could easily have become a caricature. The audience cares about the story because the actors create characters they can care about and understand.

The Fisher King is a movie that works powerfully to tell a story of mythological proportion. It illuminates basic human fears and tragedies with horror and humor, and offers the possibility of redemption, not through some saccharine Hollywood cliche, but through a process of honest, sometimes painful, communication. It is a movie that offers to change the way we look at our lives.

That's my take on it. What's yours?