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Criterion Collection: The Fisher King | Blu-ray Review

the-fisher-king-coverIt’s hard to believe something like 1991’s The Fisher King was a studio backed effort. An anomaly both as a mainstream cinematic event and within Gilliam’s own idiosyncratic filmography, the film received as much panning as praise upon its theatrical release (shortly after a premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where it was part of a three way tie with Zhang Yimou and Philippe Garrel for the Silver Lion). In the decades since, the film has garnered something of a cult following, as have many of Gilliam’s earlier works of note, filled with an often unbridled zaniness necessitating time to marinate for full appreciation. Stuffed to the point of emotional, narrative, and logical imbalance, there are as many moments of beauty as inelegance. But Gilliam’s ambitious odd-couple outfit, based on a script from Richard LaGravenese, revels in its own unique flavoring.

Radio shock jock Jack (Jeff Bridges) falls from grace after his careless words spur a man to engage in a shocking instance of violence. Attempting to reconstruct his life and career, Jack wallows in misery, supported by his gracious girlfriend, Anne (Mercedes Ruehl), who lives above the video rental store she owns. Out on a bender, Jack is saved from a beating by vicious yuppies thanks to the intervention of Parry (Robin Williams), who takes Jack to stay the night in his home, which turns out to be the boiler room of the building he used to live in. Jack picks up on several facts about Parry that makes him realize they’re connected, and so he is drawn into Parry’s universe, a man whose disillusionment has led him to believe he has been called to care for the Holy Grail. He’s apparently discovered it’s currently in the home of a wealthy man living on the Upper East Side. But Parry is convinced Jack is ‘the one,’ arriving to help him with his quest, as he’s currently thwarted by a fire-breathing figure known as the Red Knight.

The figure of the Fisher King is the last keeper of the Holy Grail, according to Arthurian legend, here metaphorically redesigned as by LaGravenese for this layered context as a man reduced to life on the streets following an unspeakable tragedy. We meet the cause of his demises first, the cruel radio DJ intent only on furthering his notoriety. But the film is as equally connected to Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio as it is King Arthur. DoP Roger Pratt first frames Bridges from below, a towering figure. We are up in the clouds with him, glancing down at the roofs of yellow taxis from the heights of the skyscrapers. Immediately after tragedy strikes and we skip ahead three years, we’re stuck in the opposite perspective, looking up into the heavens from the grimy streets, reduced by the consequences of hubris. Gilliam captures a vibrant sense of New York from this period, a beautiful landscape marred by the debris, and streets overrun with homeless people largely ignored, several years prior to a massive effort to clean up the city (it recalls a similar film portraying the homeless from this period, Charles Lane’s Sidewalk Stories, 1989). Likewise, a certain twang of nostalgia is evident in its depiction of the hole-in-the-wall video rental owned by Ruehl, those magical dives of discovery paired with the titillation of the blocked off ‘adult’ section.

The Fisher King kicked off one of Gilliam’s most prolific filmmaking decades. Scoring an Oscar for Mercedes Ruehl’s beautiful supporting performance, it netted Williams his third of four nominations. Gilliam would go to make 12 Monkeys (1995) and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) before entering into a consistent gloom of compromised, and failed projects for well over the next decade.

Principal cast members are all in top form here, though this was at the peak of Williams’ over-the-top melancholy outsiders. Gilliam shows little interest in reining him in, embracing those mad, lofty asides in ways less obnoxious than a multitude of future, patience straining vehicles Williams would headline in the late 90s. Bridges, clearly modeled after a Svengali of Smut like Howard Stern, is the effective emotional anchor until the last fourth of the film, when all gives way to a forced whimsy magically redeeming his selfish callousness. A nubile Amanda Plummer does what she can with a sometimes thankless role fluctuating from a mildly touching misfit to an annoying half-wit, culminating in a dinner scene at a Chinese restaurant launched into overdrive in its attempt to build chemistry between the lovelorn outsiders.

Of course, the film’s most notable distinction to American audiences was the Oscar win for Mercedes Ruehl, a scene stealing heartbreaker as a woman who pours all her energy and heart into a floundering relationship. Despite all the colorful touches generally present in Gilliam’s films, it’s her performance creating the film’s emotional impression. Likewise, LaGravenese’s script is filled with memorable supporting characters (you’ll spy David Hyde Pierce, Kathy Najimy, Ted Ross, and Dan Futterman), but a phenomenal Michael Jeter as a flamboyant cabaret singer is treated with a warmth and respect uncustomary for the period.

Disc Review:

A new 2K restored transfer, approved by Gilliam, Criterion’s release of the title has thankfully kept the film’s shadowy, sometimes grainy aura. Presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio, it’s quite easy to see how Gilliam’s penchant for off kilter angles makes the film seem like a bizarre artifact for a studio film. As usual, plentiful extras add to the esteem of the generous package.

The Tale of the Fisher King:
Two short documentaries, altogether an hour in length, “The Fool and the Wounded King,” and “The Real and the Fantastical,” find Gilliam, producer Lynda Obst, screenwriter Richard LaGravenese, and actors Jeff Bridges, Amanda Plummer, and Mercedes Ruehl speak on the film’s production.

The Tale of the Red Knight:
Artists Keith Greco and Vincent Jefferds recount their experiences in creating the fire-breathing Red Knight terrorizing William’s character. At twenty two minutes, it’s a playful recollection of the difficulties they faced bringing the figure to life.

Jeff’s Tale:
The production of the film is documented through Jeff Bridges’ images from the set, originally captured on his Widelux camera. Eleven minutes worth of pictures are explained by Bridges.

Jeff and Jack:
Production footage of Bridges being coached by Stephen Bridgewater finds the actor transforming into a radio shock jock. At twenty minutes, there is a generous amount of footage, with Bridges along to comment and guides us through the process.

2006 Interview with Robin Williams:
A near twenty minute interview from 2006 finds Williams speaking about the magical experience of making The Fisher King.

Costume Tests:
Three minutes of footage of cast members testing their costumes are included as a montage.

Deleted Scenes:
Six deleted scenes, selected by Gilliam and transferred from a work print, are included. Optional audio commentary is available, and the scenes are presented with actual surrounding footage from the film for context.

Final Thoughts:

The fifth Gilliam film to make an appearance in the Criterion collection, The Fisher King is a generously stuffed bauble from the director’s celebrated period. It’s a beautiful chance to revisit a noteworthy title featuring the late Robin Williams in one of his finest roles, as well as the consistently underappreciated Mercedes Ruehl.

Film: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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