Melodrama is firmly out of fashion in today’s Hollywood. Films like The Last of the Mohicans, Legends of the Fall, or Road to Perdition, which pit characters of mythical proportions against one another in emotionally-charged epics against the backdrop of pivotal eras in history, would be considered naïve or simplistic by today’s army of cynical film audiences if released now. Instead, films are routinely slathered in shades of gray, and the antihero protagonists are sometimes morally indistinguishable from the villains. What began as a movement toward realism or an acknowledgment of moral relativism has become a simplistic farce in its own right, with writers and filmmakers apparently laboring under the assumption that more vices equals more complexity.
That said, I want to highlight a film from 1991 that indulges both extravagant melodrama and a genuinely unlikeable antihero protagonist, merging both components into a stirring film that today seems far ahead of its time.
Back when the archetypal antihero was Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle rather than the pseudo-depressed, alcoholic supermodels of today, director Terry Gilliam chose Jeff Bridges to play Jack Lucas, a Howard Stern-esque shock jock who inadvertently goads a psychopath into committing a horrific murder spree and finds himself in a gut-wrenching, almost hallucinatory journey of self-discovery.
Capitalizing on the good will audiences would have had for Bridges, whom they associated with lovable goofballs and charismatic charmers, Gilliam wastes no time in the opening minutes of The Fisher King establishing that Lucas is a selfish prick whose fall from grace has only made him more self-obsessed. Lucas takes his loving and hardworking girlfriend (or is she an emotional backstop?) for granted, openly scorns just about anyone he comes into contact with, and constantly relives the circumstances of his downfall in a grand display of self-pity. Gilliam pushes the character to the limits of unlikeability, gambling that Bridges’ innate allure and star power is enough to keep audiences in their seats for the first half hour or so. Remarkably, the gamble pays off.
We’re relieved when Robin Williams enters the picture as Parry, a vagabond who lost everything when the aforementioned mass-murderer shot and killed his wife before his eyes. To the credit of Gilliam and writer Richard LaGravanese, the story does not devolve into a conflict between the two men and their roles in the traumatic event that changed both of their lives. Rather than seeking vengeance or some other tired trope, Parry rescues Lucas from a band of violent teenaged hoodlums and ushers him down the proverbial rabbit hole into a world of homeless and mentally damaged outcasts, believing Lucas will help him steal the Holy Grail from a billionaire’s New York compound. (And really, if there were a Holy Grail, where else would it end up but in the possession of a New York fat cat?)
From here, the film shifts gears several times, drifting from antiheroic struggle to buddy comedy to rom-com and back again. But regardless of the particulars of the plot, the central relationship between the cynical, self-loathing narcissist Lucas (does that sound like an oxymoron? Then you haven’t met a self-loathing narcissist) and the downtrodden but astonishingly kind Parry draws us in, addicting us to the magic that happens when they share moments of grief and genuine, mutual understanding.
And despite the narrative swings, the tone never flies off the rails thanks to a strikingly original visual motif that appears several times throughout the film: the Red Knight, a ghostly but unsettlingly tangible medieval knight bathed in red and riding a red steed. The knight is Parry’s trauma personified; it strikes at a moment’s notice, always triggered by some small reminder of Parry’s wife and the violence that took her from him.
Scenes that should be silly and utterly unbelievable — the knight chasing Parry through the streets of New York, or appearing amidst a gang of hoodlums to slash him figuratively through the heart — are instead some of the most emotionally absorbing sequences of the film. Rather than seeing grief and pain conveyed through subtle facial expressions or weeping, Gilliam throws the full brunt of Parry’s trauma-induced madness in our faces, intercutting the knight’s relentless pursuit with shockingly graphic scenes of the wife’s death at the hands of the killer Lucas unwittingly egged on over the radio.
As a result, we never forget that the film, while funny throughout, is not a comedy. At its height, it’s a full-blown melodrama about the way that grief infects our emotional wounds and keeps them from healing. At the same time, it’s a doggedly sincere film about how an authentic friendship with another human being can ultimately heal those wounds.
They don’t make ‘em like this anymore — in fact, they haven’t ever made ‘em like this, before or since. While The Fisher King is not quite as distinctly…weird?…as Gilliam’s other films, it still firmly qualifies as a Terry Gilliam original. Watch it for that reason alone, or perhaps to see Jeff Bridges scale a very real medieval-style building in the heart of New York while dressed as a medieval thief. Or to see the Red Knight, a haunting product of practical effects. Whatever draws you, it will be worth your time.
If you’re a film buff, a fan of Gilliam/Williams/Bridges, or just a fan of quality, get the Criterion Collection edition of the film. It’s worth it for the new commentary from Gilliam alone.