The Fisher King is mad. It renders you baffled, stifled, and in love with its unravelling story. You appreciate the ingenuity imbued into this film once you try to comprehend it: to understand the method in the madness.
Warning: Spoilers follow!
Directed by Terry Gilliam, who often draws on the typically literary genre of magical realism in his work, the plot tells of shock jock Jack (a deliberately provocative radio broadcaster, played by Jeff Bridges), who indirectly negatively impacts a listener. The listener goes on a shooting spree, killing seven people before committing suicide.
Upon being made aware of this, Jack falls into a depression and his life goes into decline. He is saved from being savagely beaten on the streets of Manhattan by a homeless, seemingly schizophrenic man Parry (Robin Williams). Jack later learns that Parry’s wife was one of those murdered by the radio listener.
The film does not draw you into its nonsensical, unsettlingly familiar world; it demands it of you. Be immersed and do away with preconceptions or sit in a confused, paralysing stupor for two and a half hours. But there isn’t really a choice.
Williams’ portrayal of Parry is such that you cannot help but almost immediately empathise, which in turn is key to capturing an audience. Vulnerability, sweetness and love oozes from every pore of Parry, making his schizophrenic moments all the more jarring. Alongside voices, Parry consistently imagines a rider on horseback, masked and wearing surreal clothing. Yet near the end of the film it is suggested the rider is representative of the man who killed Perry’s wife. It is open-ended as to whether Parry goes on to have these visions after the climax of the film.
Parry and Jack’s lives become increasingly intertwined. Initially it is the case of a madman and a sane man. However the distinction is blurred, and by the end of The Fisher King, the viewer is pondering whether anyone was ever sane to begin with, or whether we’re all just a little bit mad. Parry’s spontaneity, his being driven by emotional impulses alone, appeals to the irrational part of the human psyche. So there is an odd sense of familiarity when watching Parry dance his heart out in public, or recite an archaic poem in the face of danger, like a child who has not yet grappled with societal conventions.
Yet the film constantly inverts perception. Even Parry changes, albeit ever so slightly, when he falls in love and learns from Jack how to approach a woman. And Jack, the initial representative of rationality, ends up embodying the boy in Parry’s fantastical story, who fetches the Holy Grail for his master so that he can heal him of his wounds.
The film does not draw you into its nonsensical, unsettlingly familiar world; it demands it of you
The Arthurian legend is altered in the film, with the wound being mental rather than physical. Despite Jack actually stealing the Holy Grail (which is simply a bejewelled cup) and giving it to Parry, it is unclear whether he is then mentally ‘healed’ of the traumatic experience of watching his wife die. There is no significant transformation. In a similar vein, Jack, upon embarking on his quest to find the Holy Grail, dresses up in Perry’s clothing and adopts his mannerisms. The mental impact this has on Jack is also ambiguous.
It is possible that Parry is the raw, uncultivated side of Jack’s psyche; yet it is equally as possible that Jack is the polished side of Parry’s. However, this theory doesn’t hold up given that both characters mentally appear to embody one other as the film progresses. To go from seeming opposites, to congruence, ultimately means that the two characters cancel each other out, leaving the viewer with a more objective world. Perhaps this is what the director aspired to convey: the significance of perception and the importance of one arrived at independently.
After all, Gilliam did say, “I think we live in an age where we’re just hammered, hammered to think this is what the world is. Television’s saying, everything’s saying “That’s the world.” And it’s not the world. The world is a million possible things.”
Despite the too-predictable ending, the fact that the film still manages to provoke more questions than answers is testament to its level of complexity. And these are the types of questions that do not easily go away, because they deal with the issue of humanity.