The Fisher King (1991)

In Brazil, writer/director Terry Gilliam delved deep into the fantastic dreams of a lowly civic worker stuck amid a dystopian society. Here, the strange fantasies of an everyman provided hope in a hopeless world. The Fisher King also deals in the dreams of a man as mad as a hatter. For the modern man, dreams and fantasies are delusions, remnants of an ignorant age that existed long before humans became enlightened.

Jack (Jeff Bridges) is such a man, espousing his wisdom out across the airwaves to all who will listen. He’s a crass and aggressive DJ who an ego to fill his entire recording studio. This is the modern man. He knows what he wants, believes he can take it and never backs down. But one day it all tumbles apart around him, his fame evolves into infamy when he gives advice that triggers a murder spree.

Dejected, aimless and disorderly, Jack has lost his way, any sense of conviction, identity and self-worth died when he left his job, torn with guilt over the horrible deed he inspired. It’s then, either by chance or fate, he meets Parry (Robin Williams), a delusional man who wanders through the worst streets in New York City pretending he is a knight of old and speaking of his holy calling: to recover The Holy Grail.

At first, Jack has no desire to associate with a stinky madman, but once he discovers Parry’s past he thinks he has a way out, a chance to resolve his own past and move forward. Once again, it becomes about Jack’s ego, the chance to feel better about himself. While Parry’s madness proves hard to endure and his odd whims are frustrating, Jack perseveres, caught in a cycle of penance.

While many will probably look upon Parry as the madman, much like Jack, they miss the true complexity of the character. Layers of trauma have place Parry in a state where he must create a mythology to understand his universe. And, after all, isn’t that what stories are constructed for? Aren’t the best of fantasies another way of looking at our own world through parallels, metaphors and allusions?

Jack can’t understand the Red Knight or make sense of a quest for the Holy Grail. He sees it as a futile exercise, chasing after something he can never attain. What he misses is the futility of his own quest, the maddening though that he can somehow pay back for what he’s done. He tries to put a monetary value on it, one so miniscule it’s almost insulting.

Atonement isn’t the answer. It cannot bring bridge the gap needed to cross the deep chasm between the characters in the story. It’s too self-serving a motivation. What can help heal the wounds, bridge the gaps and stop the suffering is love, the selfless resolve to do something for the benefit of others with no thought of personal gain.

That’s what Jack is frustrated with Parry. He can’t understand such a man, he can’t make sense of why Parry risks his life to save a sorry drunk in the ditch or gives away the little money he has. Love doesn’t figure into the consumerist world driven by selfish motives and looking out for number one. And why would Jack love others when he can’t even come to love himself? That is what The Fisher King is about, a powerful parable about the power of love.

© 2011 James Blake Ewing