Criterion Collection: The Fisher King

Director: Terry Gilliam

Writer: Richard LaGravenese

Cast: Jeff Bridges, Robin Williams, Mercedes Ruehl, Amanda Plummer

Cert: 15

Running time: 137mins

Year: 1991

Film: medium_5

What’s the story: Radio shock jock Jack Lucas (Bridges) falls into suicidal depression after his on-air remarks spark a tragic incident. He seeks redemption in helping Parry (Williams), a manic homeless man caught up in the event Jack inadvertently caused.

What’s the verdict: A welcome Criterion Collection release of Terry Gilliam’s romantic fairytale that doesn’t forget to add a generous pinch of the Grimm stuff.

Wounded by the difficult production of 1988’s The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the vagaries of Hollywood saw Gilliam returning three years later to Columbia, the studio that unceremoniously dumped Munchausen into the smallest number of cinemas contractual obligations would permit.

This time around there would be a Hollywood happy ending. Gilliam brought the film in on time, on budget, and gave Columbia Tri-Star a respectable hit. And proved Robin Williams an actor of remarkable range. While demonstrating how good Jeff Bridges could be with dark character meat on which to chew. And allowed a largely unknown Mercedes Ruehl to impress the Academy into awarding her Best Supporting Actress at the 1992 Oscars.

Not a bad way for Gilliam to show he could play nice in Hollywood’s sandpit after clashing with Columbia on Munchausen and bruising his reputation during the battle over Brazil at Universal in 1985.

Easy to see what attracted the director to the project. Jack Lucas is the type of venal, self-serving scuzzball the iconoclastic director enjoys putting in his movies. Jack’s fall from grace, into the brassy, protective arms of video shop owner Anne (Ruehl), allows Bridges to dig deep into a seemingly empty vessel of a character to unearth the humanity.

Robin Williams as the damaged Parry, homeless and convinced he’s a knight searching for the Holy Grail, is the archetypal “dreamer in a savage land” Gilliam champions. Parry’s imagined foe preventing him completing his quest is the Red Knight, a crimson hellion, belching flame astride a terrifying steed.

The challenge that presumably appealed to Terry is wedding his favourite themes and beloved Arthurian imagery to contemporary New York, the first time he had not worked in a period setting.

Anchoring the boys in recognisable reality are the female characters, with first class performances from Ruehl and Amanda Plummer as Lydia, the viewed-from-afar object of Parry’s affection. Both women live in worlds of compromise and dashed hopes, delivering the film some of its rawest moments.

And while The Fisher King’s phantoms are fantastical, their root cause is a grim event as relevant now as back in 1991, realised by Gilliam in a moment of (earned) graphic brutality.

The story roots may be planted in dark soil, but ultimately the movie has a beautiful, life-affirming bloom. Gilliam and screenwriter Richard LaGravenese do not allow Jack or Parry easy rides to reach their goals, but both script and direction balance light and shade to keep audiences hooked on the characters’ journeys.

For those who bemoan a Gilliam a bombastic director, check out the crafty expressionism on display. Jack’s radio studio casts long shadows, suggesting he’s locked in a jail of his own making. The Red Knight is a combination of the blood and fire tragedy that cracked Parry’s mind. A Pinocchio doll regularly appears, reminding us of Jack’s quest to become a real person. And see how much subtle Grail imagery is dotted throughout the movie.

This is also a glorious reminder of done-for-real filmmaking. A time when if you wanted to shoot a thousand people suddenly waltzing in Grand Central Station, you hired a thousand extras and shut down Grand Central for nine-hours. It’s harder than green screen, but the result is a gorgeously romantic flight of Parry’s fancy, even more dazzling in this age of digital workarounds.

The madness of The Fisher King would be felt again in Brad Pitt’s Oscar nominated turn in Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, and in everything in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. But, he has arguably not recaptured that sparkle of humanity burning so brightly here.

Now he’s got Don Quixote out of his system, could we suggest Tez gives us something grounded in reality, but which soars like this wonderful movie?

DISC AND EXTRAS: A good-looking transfer, accentuating the deep colours (particularly the infernal reds) of Roger Pratt’s photography.

Matching the Criterion Collection’s 2015 Region A Blu-ray, this is the Holy Grail of Fisher King releases (sorry, we had to). Chief amongst the excellent extras is Terry Gilliam’s 1991 commentary from the original Criterion laserdisc.

Any disappointment that Criterion didn’t get Terry back in a booth for a retrospective commentary (and that would be a great thing) is swiftly cast aside. On the talk track, the director proves himself a smart cookie and something of a sage. Lamenting the age of mass communication, he comments on how instant communication is no communication. How it seemingly brings people closer but puts more distance between them. How it exploits the lonely and vulnerable. How the greater technology becomes, the more dumbed down the message.

All this back in 1991, but he could be commenting on social media, reality telly and the Bay-ification of blockbuster cinema.

Gilliam is as good here as on his other audio commentaries when recounting working with the cast, choosing a woman editor (his now regular editor Lesley Walker) so the female viewpoints in the film wouldn’t be lost, and pointing out Grail motifs that pepper the visuals.

The Tale of the Fisher King is an hour-long documentary divided into two parts, The Fool and the Wounded King and The Real and the Fantastical. Recent interviews and archive footage bring the movie’s production to life. Co-producer Lynda Obst recalls how her close friend and one-time Columbia Studios boss Dawn Steel vowed Gilliam would never helm The Fisher King, and that James Cameron circled the project but was tied up with Terminator 2 duties.

Absent from this documentary of course is Robin Williams, referred to with affection and awe by his colleagues. Obst reveals how he snuck waltzing extras water during the shooting of the Grand Central sequence and kept their spirits up, while Gilliam recounts how during the night shoot for the Chinese restaurant date scene, Williams roasted every member of the cast and crew with his quickfire humour.

Williams himself is heard in the 20-minute interview feature, Robin’s Tale, vividly bringing to life the experience of shooting in New York and handling the movie’s darker material.

Jeff’s Tale is a 10-minute featurette with Bridges narrating a selection of the photographs he took on set and location (something he does for every film he’s on). Jeff and Jack is a 20-minute feature on Jeff Bridges’ crash course in shock-jocking, under the tutelage of one-time radio host Scott Bridgewater. Video camera footage follows Bridges’ first practice to final recording, as he slowly transforms into Jack Lucas. Incidentally, Bridgewater is also the customer looking for a porn movie in The Fisher King.

Six deleted scenes come with optional audio commentary. None damaged the film by their removal, but it is nice to watch Amanda Plummer dancing in her apartment.

Tale of the Red Knight is a 20-minute interview-cum-workshop-rummage with artists Keith Greco and Vincent Jefferds, who sculpted the armour and finery for the film’s fiery phantom menace. Discussing a time before widespread CGI, they talk about making realistic looking latex armour and rigging the costume with gas canisters for the fire effects.

A three-minute sizzle reel of customer designs, nine-minutes of trailers (all of which skirt the film’s darker aspects) and the usual worthwhile booklet make this another magical Criterion release.

Rob Daniel
Twitter: rob_a_Daniel

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1 thought on “Criterion Collection: The Fisher King”

  1. Pingback: Jabberwocky - Terry Gilliam's first movie takes flight in Criterion's Blu-ray release

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