Sick With Experience

In a pure coincidence, I followed Three Christs with another movie about who, really, is the delusional person. Though it has been out for almost 30 years, I had never seen The Fisher King (1991; for rent on Amazon Prime or free with a Showtime subscription). On the surface, the two movies seem far apart, but what Terry Gilliam did with The Fisher King is, I think, what Three Christs could have been. The concept for Three Christs seems like it should be brilliant, funny, and sad, but while Three Christs plods heavily along, The Fisher King floats effortlessly above the ground.


The Fisher King begins with Jack Lucas (Jeff Bridges), Howard Stern lookalike, sarcastically mocking various callers to his radio show. He’s on the literal top of the world, living in a penthouse apartment, about to get a part on a sit-com. He’s thinking about what he’s going to name his memoir, and he has all the (early ’90s) technology he can buy, including three TVs lined up in a cabinet. And that’s where the trouble begins, because all three TVs simultaneously display his face. He thinks it’s going to be more praise for him, but instead it’s breaking news about how he pushed an unstable man to murder.

Jack was fundamentally selfish before, and reveling in it. Now his selfishness bends to self-destruction, as he numbs himself with Jack Daniel’s and masochistic viewing of the show on which he was supposed to get a part. He shares an apartment with Anne (Mercedes Ruehl, who won an Academy Award for the role), who owns the video rental store below. She inexplicably loves him and hopes for marriage, while he is taking advantage of her hospitality.

He continues his bender and that’s how he comes to meet Parry (Robin Williams) and his homeless companions, who save Jack from being immolated (after he was about to jump into the East River with concrete blocks tied to his feet). Though he finds Parry distasteful and more than a little mentally unstable, Jack discovers he is connected to Parry in a way that makes it impossible for Jack to simply ignore him.

And that connection makes for one of the most intriguing themes in the movie. Jack wants to be free of the guilt he feels for the shooting, and he thinks that by helping Parry, he can absolve himself. He says, “I wish there was some way I could just pay the fine and go home.” Jack tries to “pay the fine” by giving Parry $70, but Parry just gives it to another homeless man. We see just how laughable and grotesque Jack’s gesture is. He can’t undo or make right his actions with a few dollars. He is responsible not only for encouraging his caller’s murderous rampage, but indirectly he’s responsible for Parry’s situation.

For much of the film, Jack continues to think he can work off his debt to Parry. Finally, he convinces himself that he’s done that when he brings Parry together with his love interest. And then we see that Jack hasn’t really been trying to do right by Parry. He’s simply been using him to justify himself. Not only has he not been acting selflessly, his self-justification doesn’t work. He hasn’t really changed; it was all only a self-indulgent attempt to be free of the guilt in which he was wallowing. “I’m trying to figure out why,” he says to the catatonic Parry, “no matter what I have, it feels like I have nothing.”

The ending could be viewed in two different ways. It could be understood as Jack finally being able to perform the one good work that Parry required, and thereby atoning for his sin. Jack is the one who brings the “Grail” to Parry, and it is the reception of that cup that miraculously heals Parry. But it could also be understood as Parry acting out the part of the fool (who is, in other versions, the knight Percival) in the story of the Fisher King that Parry tells Jack in Central Park. That is, as Parry tells it, the fool doesn’t even know he has the Holy Grail when he gives the King water from it. The King has been searching his whole life for the Grail, but now he finds it unexpectedly, simply because someone gave him a drink of water.

Who is the Fisher King in the movie and who is giving the drink of water? Both Jack and Parry are wounded with a seemingly incurable wound. And both are healed by an act of grace, which Parry explicitly identifies with the grace of God symbolized by the Grail.

It is a little hard, and probably not desirable, to untangle all the threads that make up The Fisher King. It is a full story, tying together trauma, guilt, mental illness, homelessness, and love. It is a modern fairy tale, a fantasy, and a parable of humbling and healing, as an unseen Lord brings low the proud and haughty and exalts the lowly and the lost.