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Underwatched & underrated: The Fisher King

A case for why The Fisher King by Terry Gilliam deserves more attention.


Terry Gilliam is a respected filmmaker, famed for the peerless Brazil, the wonderfully twisted Twelve Monkeys and his messy but fun adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  But when Gilliam is discussed in film circles, The Fisher King is rarely brought up.

In The Fisher King we watch Jeff Bridges play a shock-jock radio DJ (loosely based on Howard Stern) who inadvertently encourages a disturbed listener to go on a shooting spree.  Years after the event, he is washed up and haunted by guilt, but begins to find redemption through his friendship with the mythology-obsessed Parry (Robin Williams), a homeless madman whose wife was a victim in the shooting spree.

Gilliam’s films are often cerebral, more concerned with fascinating imagery than emotional depth or character development.  This is what sets The Fisher King apart from the rest of Gilliam’s filmography: his trademark imagery is on display but it is all based in a fairly grounded reality.  Any ornate or surreal visions take place in dream or hallucinatory sequences.  The Fisher King is probably Gilliam’s most sentimental picture.  It deals with trauma and guilt in an emotionally engaging way, where in his other films there is often a sense of detachment.  That is not to say that Gilliam’s other films aren’t enchanting, just not in the warm, romantic way that The Fisher King is.

There were a number of critics who took issue with Robin Williams’ performance in this film. It can be difficult to tell whether his character is supposed to be comedic or dramatic, which can be jarring.  However, I think the jarring nature of Williams’ routine is a stirring way of exploring madness.  Williams’ Parry is concurrently charming and frustrating, which allows the audience to understand the struggle other characters have in relating to him.

The visual style of the film is striking and the director clearly made the most of the New York locations.  There is a particular scene set in Grand Central Station at rush hour in which Parry walks after the woman he is fixated by, and as he does so, the commuters that surround him begin to waltz in symmetry together. I’ll put the link to the scene here, because if this review does not persuade you to seek this film out, this scene will:  Interestingly, this scene was not in the script and was not arranged until very close to filming, which only makes it seem more spontaneous and romantic.

I think it’s one of those films that went unseen by many because it must have been a very difficult one to market.  A comedy-drama that features homelessness, insanity and cross-dressing as some of its major themes is a difficult sell.  But this is what makes the film so charming; it is chaotic film that almost takes on more themes than it can handle, and in this chaos the film finds a sense of delirious excitement that is totally unique.

The Fisher King is romantic and schmaltzy in all the right places.  It is funny and tragic, often simultaneously. It is a film that is peppered with wisdom, and it deserves more attention.


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