A fairy tale grounded in poignant reality, the magnificent, Manhattan-set 'The Fisher King,' by Terry Gilliam, features Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams in two of their most brilliant roles. Bridges plays a former radio shock jock reconstructing his life after a scandal, and Williams is a homeless man on a quest for the Holy Grail—which he believes to be hidden somewhere on the Upper West Side. Unknowingly linked by their pasts, the two men aid each other on a fanciful journey to redemption. This singular American odyssey features a witty script by Richard La Gravenese, evocative cinematography by Roger Pratt, and superb supporting performances by Amanda Plummer and an Oscar-winning Mercedes Ruehl, all harnessed by Gilliam into a humane, funny modern-day myth.
Our actions have consequences. It's one of the first things we learn as children. Whether we like it or not, everything we do has an effect on the world and people around us, reverberating outwards in sometimes unexpectedly tragic ways. Even our very words hold potentially devastating power -- and it is this phenomenon that sets off Terry Gilliam's 'The Fisher King,' a quirky blend of heartbreaking drama and uplifting comedy that explores the hardships of guilt and the difficulties of healing. Fueled by Gilliam's trademark visual flash and some strong performances from a stellar cast, the movie becomes a modern day fairy tale full of raw emotion and magical romance.
Jack (Jeff Bridges) is a typical shock-jock radio host, who speaks before he thinks, spewing controversial, heartless rhetoric in an attempt to drive up ratings. When he gives an unstable caller some callous advice, his seemingly harmless words end up having violent consequences. Devastated by the indirect but still catastrophic results of his behavior, Jack disappears from the radio world and retreats into a depressed and listless state. After an attempted suicide goes wrong, the miserable disc jockey is saved by a mentally unstable homeless man, Parry (Robin Williams). Seeking redemption for his past mistakes, Jack decides to help Parry overcome his psychosis and win over the girl of his dreams (Amanda Plummer). Unfortunately, Parry may simply be too far gone, and temptations from the shock-jock's former, selfish life attempt to lure the reformed egomaniac back into his old ways.
When we first meet Jack, his face isn't even shown. Instead, Gilliam presents a dizzying display of overhead shots and roaming, obstructed views, showcasing the radio personality right in the thick of his natural habitat: hiding behind a microphone in the heat of a live show. Close-up shots of his lips spouting heartless jab after jab reinforce his almost inhuman, unaccountable behavior, forming a perfect visual introduction to the character. For the first few minutes, through Gilliam's camera, Jack literally is a disembodied voice -- a mere faceless mouth, giving visual form to the film's thematic undertones while expertly setting up the character's potential growth later on.
Through his friendship with Parry, Jack is given a second chance, and the gradually symbiotic relationship that forms between the two equally wounded men becomes the crux of the story. Bridges is fantastic as the formally heartless and materialistic entertainer. His good side is always visible, but the actor brings a certain fragile and precarious quality to his attempted atonement that makes it seem as if he might throw in the towel at any minute. This isn't a simple story of redemption, and as the character learns, true salvation can't be achieved by merely giving kindness a momentary, half-hearted attempt.
Complementing Bridges' sarcastic cynicism is Robin Williams who, in Parry, finds the perfect vehicle for his manic genius. A kind of homeless Don Quixote or psychotic Lancelot, Parry has retreated from the pain of his tragic life through fantasy, anointing himself as "God's Janitor" in search of the fabled Holy Grail. With just the right balance of high-energy insanity and more somber truth, Williams forms an entertaining and insightful character that plays up the magic of cinema, while still respecting the realities of mental illness. Special note should also be given to Amanda Plummer as Parry's clumsy object of desire. In her own way, Plummer is perhaps the oddest of the whole bunch, and turns awkward, anti-social behavior into an adorable art form.
While the film's central relationship and themes are strong, the script does have some minor issues. There are times when characters resort to overly expository dialogue, revealing past events in a rather banal and forced manner. The final act of the film also loses some of the creativity found in the story's earlier segments, with the plot taking some more classically formulaic and predictable turns. This leads to an ending that, while deserved, feels a bit too saccharine.
Thankfully, Gilliam's cinematic panache more than makes up for any small flaws in scripting, and the director brings his usual penchant for visual madness to the screen in carefully chosen bursts. Distorted, slanted shots and wide angle compositions bring out the hidden insanity in our everyday world, exaggerating and expanding upon commonplace eccentricities. Likewise, a few more overt journeys into the surreal give the film some much needed excitement and tension, including Parry's terrifying visions of an evil "Red Knight," and a beautiful sequence involving an imaginary ballroom that sprouts up right in the middle of a busy train station.
This intermittent sense of imagination goes on to perfectly complement the runtime's poignant drama -- weaving an affecting tale about two broken men who find a way to heal each other. Just as we are often responsible for causing pain in those around us, 'The Fisher King' reveals that we are also capable of easing it, helping each other to reclaim some semblance of what we have lost through nothing more than simple kindness. Gilliam and his cast create a heartfelt and funny peek into the sometimes insightful insanity that lurks within us all, blending fantasy and reality into a bittersweet celebration of humanity.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion brings 'The Fisher King' to Blu-ray on a BD-50 disc that comes housed in their standard clear case with spine number 764. A pamphlet with an essay by critic Bilge Ebiri is also included. The packaging indicates that the release is region A compatible. The movie was previously released as a barebones disc from Image Entertainment.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Despite technically being a new director approved transfer, the image here is nearly identical to the previously released Image Entertainment Blu-ray -- offering only very marginal improvements in print stability. With that said, there are actually isolated instances where the compression on the Image video is superior (check out the slight blocking/contouring in the sky as the camera pans down around the 02:12:50 mark). Since color, contrast, and clarity are essentially the same, however, my comments from the previous review apply to this transfer as well. Here's what I had to say in my original evaluation:
With an authentic, filmic quality and pleasing detail, the movie looks quite good, showing off Gilliam's occasional bursts of visual madness. The source print is in nice shape with a natural layer of grain throughout. A few shots are a little soft and flat but, for the most part, clarity is very strong, especially in close-ups, showcasing all of the nuances and intricacies of Williams' dirty, manic face. Colors carry a pleasing but natural vibrancy, and there is some nice pop throughout, particularly during Parry's visions of the Red Knight and a scene set in a Chinese restaurant which features some bold blue and red production design. Black levels are deep and consistent, and contrast is balanced without blooming.
Free from any unnecessary digital manipulation, 'The Fisher King' comes to Blu-ray with a respectful and at times impressive transfer. Gilliam's inventive and energetic camerawork, compositions, and art design shine through nicely, giving the film's sporadic detours into the surreal some pleasing pop and depth. Though there are some negligible differences between this transfer and the original Image Entertainment release, these differences (both good and bad) are so minor that they do not warrant a change in score.
The audio is presented in an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 track. For all intents and purposes, this appears to be the same mix from the Image Entertainment release. Thankfully, much like the video, that's not a bad thing at all. While not always the liveliest of tracks, the modest but effective design suits the content very well.
Speech is crisp with a nice, full quality free of distortion or crackle. Directionality across the front soundstage is strong, with appropriate effects and music cues bustling about. Rear activity can be a little subdued during most scenes, offering limited to minor echoes of music and faint ambiance. The track does come alive during Parry's various hallucinations, however, with creepy voices, booming effects, and even some low-end rumble surrounding the listener. Dynamic range is good and balance between all of the audio elements is handled well, though speech can be a little low at times.
The sound design doesn't exactly wow with immersion, but the momentary bursts of auditory excitement perfectly complement the film's sporadic explosions in visual creativity, providing a solid and varied listening experience.
Thankfully, unlike the barebones Image Entertainment release, Criterion has seen fit to give 'The Fisher King' the special edition treatment it deserves. The disc offers a great selection of supplements, including deleted scenes and lots of interviews with the cast and crew. All of the special features are presented in 1080p or 1080i with Dolby Digital audio, unless noted otherwise.
Terry Gilliam's 'The Fisher King' is a quirky and heartfelt examination of guilt and healing -- all filtered through the director's madcap visual style and unbridled imagination. Video and audio quality are both good, presenting an authentic and respectful viewing experience. Thankfully, Criterion has included a wealth of great supplements that offer an interesting peek into the film's production. While this new disc doesn't offer much of a technical upgrade over the previous Image Entertainment release, the special features really are a nice bonus making this a very worthy double dip for fans. And if you don't already own the movie, then this is definitely the version to buy. Highly recommended.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.