A shock jock, Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), sports the Howard Stern lifestyle, shouting out his misanthropic bile on the radio waves, until one day his ‘advice’ sends a lonely man into a rage that leaves several people at a New York restaurant murdered. Years later, Lucas is barely able to keep his sanity, unable to manage life without step-by-step directions by his girlfriend, Anne (Mercedes Ruehl). But one night, out late and mistaken for a homeless man, he’s rescued and befriended by a delusional man named Parry (Robin Williams), who fends off several mugger/thug types.
Parry shares his own understandings of what his ‘quest’ is with Lucas, and Lucas thinks him crazy. Then, he discovers that Parry’s mind snapped when a man shot and killed Parry’s wife in a New York restaurant… and Lucas feels responsible.
Their friendship is the meat of Gilliam’s film, but it hinges on a fantastic adventure that is part- Don Quixote and part-Arthurian legend. This is where the “Gilliam fantasy” plays out, delivered in beautiful high definition today by the Criterion Collection mastery. This is the material you need to know – the background for this parable of how we treat our neighbor, tied into the legends of old, the legends of King Arthur.
In the legends of King Arthur and his Round Table, there is a Fisher King (or a Wounded King, or both) who are responsible for protecting the Holy Grail, that is the cup that Jesus drank from at the Last Supper. The Fisher King is unable to have children himself – his impotence renders him unable to continue the line of men who will protect the Grail. But he is joined (and healed) by others who come to accept the task, namely Galahad and Bors who join Percival in the quest. Some versions even find that there are two of these kings who work together, of varying relatedness, with one called “The Wounded King,” and one called “The Fisher King.” (No, I didn’t know that all off the top of my head. Thanks to Wikipedia, I could present all that at least somewhat succinctly!)
The Criterion treatment means you get a written essay that speaks to the heart of the film, plus special video features (Bridges trains as Stern!) and interviews with various players, like the recently-departed Williams. It’s odd watching Williams play a mentally-disturbed man, as he often did, knowing that he struggled with depression and anguish himself. It’s a strange case of art imitating life imitating art.
Ultimately, I find the film fascinating because the two men, both broken and hurting but unable to see it for themselves, heal each other. They bind each others’ wounds up so to speak; they carry each other’s burdens. Unlike so many films like this where it’s “too far gone, too late, so sorry,” The Fisher King mystically shows what happens when someone is willing to take on the other’s burdens, lay down his life for a friend – even a friend who seemed like “the other,” distant, and unworthy.
Even more multi-dimensional is the power of ‘word’ set out in the form. As someone whose career, calling, and work (whichever one works best for you) as a pastor, teacher, and writer relies on words, I was struck by the lesson in the rise and fall of Lucas. His words are what draw people in, what earned him paychecks and fame and fortune. His anger and bitter perspective is what the media and advertisers sought… until those same, mean spirited words caused a mass murder. James 3:6 states, “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” Yikes!
James continues in verse 9, “With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. ” It’s a terrible thing what Lucas does, what he drives, inspires, or encourages that man to do in the restaurant. It’s a warning to all of us that our words have the power to kill and to scar, but… they also have the power to heal.
Lucas thinks he owes Parry, that he can help heal Parry. It’s weird, but Parry might not be the one who needs (the most) healing. Maybe it’s Lucas. Maybe it’s the serving, the binding up, the words of comfort and encouragement that Lucas says that undo all of those words of anger he shared. Maybe by sharing some of himself with another, he actually becomes human, even Christ-like.
Maybe this is what penance looks like, or redemption, or renewal. No matter what you call it, it’s beautiful.