- Nov 15, 2001
- Real Name
- Neil Middlemiss
The Fisher King is at once a story about the power of kindness and a commentary of homelessness and mental illness. Directed by Terry Gilliam’s, the film is a curious journey through sadness and darkness that warms and enriches the soul. Filled with expert performances, Gilliam’s trademark directorial approach (though restrained from his more unleashed adventures,) and a marvelous sense of intimacy among the New York setting, The Fisher King is a must see. Criterion’s fine Blu-ray release is a perfect opportunity to discover, or rediscover, this wonderful film.
Distributed By: N/A
Video Resolution and Encode: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
Audio: English 5.1 DTS-HDMA
Subtitles: English, English SDH
Run Time: 2 Hr. 18 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-rayStandard Criterion Case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Release Date: 06/23/2015
The Production Rating: 4.5/5
“It begins with the king as a boy, having to spend the night alone in the forest to prove his courage so he can become king. Now while he is spending the night alone he's visited by a sacred vision. Out of the fire appears the Holy Grail, symbol of God's divine grace. And a voice said to the boy, "You shall be keeper of the grail so that it may heal the hearts of men." But the boy was blinded by greater visions of a life filled with power and glory and beauty. And in this state of radical amazement he felt for a brief moment not like a boy, but invincible, like God, so he reached into the fire to take the grail, and the grail vanished, leaving him with his hand in the fire to be terribly wounded. Now as this boy grew older, his wound grew deeper. Until one day, life for him lost its reason. He had no faith in any man, not even himself. He couldn't love or feel loved. He was sick with experience. He began to die. One day a fool wandered into the castle and found the king alone. And being a fool, he was simple minded, he didn't see a king. He only saw a man alone and in pain. And he asked the king, "What ails you friend?" The king replied, "I'm thirsty. I need some water to cool my throat". So the fool took a cup from beside his bed, filled it with water and handed it to the king. As the king began to drink, he realized his wound was healed. He looked in his hands and there was the Holy Grail, that which he sought all of his life. And he turned to the fool and said with amazement, "How can you find that which my brightest and bravest could not?" And the fool replied, "I don't know. I only knew that you were thirsty."”
Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges,) a popular narcissistic radio shock-jock, suffers a fall from grace when one of his regular callers kills several upscale bar patrons following one of his tirades against the “yuppies” of New York. Years later, Jack remains smug and self-centered. He now works in a video rental store owned by his girlfriend, Anne (Mercedes Ruehl.) Still haunted by the murderous rampage one of his listeners took after hearing his show, Jack drinks and seems unable to escape the gravity of his failure. After a near-suicidal evening of heavy drinking on the streets of the city, he is attacked and beaten by two angry teens, then saved by an enigmatic and hyper-energetic homeless man. Jack wakes up in an industrial building, the place where his bizarre rescuer – Parry – took him for his safety. Parry, suffering delusions, is in search of the Holy Grail, which he believes to be on a shelf in the home of a wealthy New Yorker, inside a castle of a house. Jack is at first distressed by the turn of events, but the mystery of Parry, and his unflappable belief he must steal the Holy Grail from the fortified home, captures Jack’s interest. Parry has haunting visions of a Red Knight riding a fire-breathing horse, and when Jack learns that Parry’s wife was the first killed in the “yuppie” bar shooting he believes he is responsible for, Jack decides he must help Parry.
Gilliam’s story is driven in part by the oft-told tale of The Fisher King, an age-old tale with many versions but all which share the idea of king who spends his life in search of the Holy Grail. On his death bed, having never found the Grail, he is attended by a fool. The fool only wants to help the king by bringing his thirsty lips some water, and does so by picking up a nearby cup, filling it with water, and offering it to the King. As the king takes a sip, he soon recognizes the cup as the Grail – that for which he searched his entire life. The fool cares not about the Grail, only that there was a person than needed his help. That simple parable is the heart of Terry Gilliam’s most grounded film. By way of both a king so focused on his pursuit that he does not see what is right beneath his nose, and of the fool who only cares about helping someone in need. Through this central idea, the film examines what it means to be happy through a prism of how the poor and mentally ill are treated, and how ‘having it all’ is meaningless without the pursuit of helping others.
As the cynical, nihilistic Jack Lucas, Jeff Bridges is flawless. Arcing from a self-absorbed and isolationist egotist to a redeemed man, we watch him become bent down into his own abyss by the power of his words and churn at rock bottom, before coming to terms with his fatalistic flaws with hounding humility. Throughout, Bridges’ Jack is never unreasonably likeable. Even when he does good; even if unintentionally selfless, we, the audience aren’t fully sold. We remain cynical in return – and that cynicism is earned. And so Bridges journey remains honest to the character, heightening our appreciation of his performance. As his girlfriend, Ann, Mercedes Ruehl is dynamic. Deservedly winning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, Reuhl delivers a character that is strong and vulnerable, patient and out of time, empathetic and suspicious. She creates such a rich and memorable character and plays off Bridges’ mean spirit with great clarity.
Robin Williams portrays the damaged Parry beautifully. The exuberant nature of his comic cajoling would have seemed to be perfect for the wilder moments of Parry’s ‘crazy,’ but Williams restrains the outlandish possibilities for Parry, anchoring his delusions and flights of hallucinatory fancy with surprising reality and a through line of sadness, giving the entire performance a heartbreaking air. It is in the moments of his character’s lucidity – those pauses in theatrical coping – where Williams shines the brightest.
Williams’ wonderful performance has become more haunting and meaningful as we have learned of his struggle with depression/mental illness, a struggle that would lead him take his own life. Watching his pained and tortured Parry character cover an unbearable pain with cheer beneath the surface of his life resonates in ways we could not have predicted. Of the many brilliant dramatic performances from Williams’ over the years, his performance as Parry stands tall among them (along with his fine turns in Moscow on the Hudson, Awakenings, What Dreams May Come, and Good Will Hunting.) In the film, as he grapples nerves in pursuit of a lady he has watched from afar – a clumsy, oddball woman, Lydia (portrayed with endearing quirk by Amanda Plummer,) William’s adds greater nuance to his performance, weaving humility beneath exuberance, and a shy demeanor wrapped around an outlandish extroversion.
Jeff Bridges fills the role of the unlikable Jack Lucas with expertise, channeling his characters slick-talk and selfish preoccupations with precision. While Robin Williams may stand out as the most attentive performance, it is Jack’s story and arc we must be invested in for the film to work, and because of Bridges’ immersed performance, we become invested deeply in who is wants – and must – become.
The Fisher King is a commentary on homelessness and mental illness, but it does not become a lecture. It shows rather than tells and throughout the film, we see the poor cast in the shadows of the city; shown as a forgotten rabble, relegated to mere nuisances to the prosperous and oblivious occupants of New York. And despite the humor and fantastical elements found in the film, there is a serious examination of the people that find their way to the bottom of society’s heap. Parry’s emergence from a catatonic state following his wife’s murder, and his mental illness in trying to cope with the trauma of what he saw for example, render him incapable of functioning in ‘normal’ society. And he’s not alone.
The screenplay by Richard LaGravenese is uncommonly good. Filled with pitch-perfect delusions, whimsical lunacy that is both magical and unsettling (much in the way it must be for those saddled with such burdens,) and enormous empathy and sensitivity. Terry Gilliam’s style gifts the material a perfect sense of disorientation and intimacy, and he allows himself just a few moments of pure fantasy, the flourishes he would lavish upon his films like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Brazil. Gilliam is reported to have wanted to do a film with no elaborate special effects – a simpler project – and chose The Fisher King to be that film. And he still fills every inch of the frame with an unmistakably Gilliam-feel, and it is superb.
Video Rating: 4.5/5 3D Rating: NA
The Fisher King is damp, unkempt, and grimy in its aesthetic and appears with superb detail and a welcome consistency of grain throughout. Presented in 1.78:1, the Blu-ray comes from a new digital transfer created in 2K from a 35mm interpositive – and approved by director Terry Gilliam.
A fine level of detail is revealed in this HD release, with bright, daylight scenes – in particular those where beams of daylight strike the surroundings – the best demonstration of this level of detail. The film has many dark scenes which are presented exceedingly well, with deep blacks and the scene visible even from modest light sources.
Audio Rating: 5/5
The available English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 provides wonderful clarity of dialogue, a pleasing warmth from composer George Fenton’s score, and sufficient growl and immersion from the appearances of the menacing Red Knight. The soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from the original 35mm 6-track magnetic tracks, and it is flawless.
Special Features Rating: 4.5/5
A terrific collection of special features accompany this release, with the Terry Gilliam audio commentary, resurrected from the Laserdisc release, standing out. New interviews with cast members and director, producer and screenwriter offer a welcome retrospective on the production can be found as part of a two-part documentary (“The Tale of The Fisher King.”)
The collection of 6 deleted scenes runs a total of around 14 minutes and are available with optional commentary by director Gilliam.
Audio commentary featuring Terry Gilliam
New interviews with Gilliam; producer Lynda Obst; screenwriter Richard La Gravenese; and actors Jeff Bridges, Amanda Plummer, and Mercedes Ruehl
New interviews with artists Keith Greco and Vincent Jefferds on the creation of the film’s Red Knight
Interview from 2006 with actor Robin Williams
New video essay featuring Bridges’s on-set photographs
Deleted scenes, with optional commentary by Gilliam
An essay by critic Bilge Ebiri in the included ‘fold-out’ (I wish Criterion would return to the booklet format.)
Overall Rating: 4.5/5
I’ve long been a fan of The Fisher King. I believe the last time I saw the film was on VHS back in England in the early 90s. Revisiting the film courtesy of Criterion’s excellent edition, shows a far more potent and emotionally resonating film than I had remembered. With kindness, in no uncertain terms as both the path and the key to happiness, despite all the darkness and sadness embroiling the lives of the central characters, the film will leave you with a warm and broad smile of earned hope and happiness.
Reviewed By: Neil Middlemiss
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