Faith Review – The Fisher King (1991)
Faith Review of The Fisher King
By Tommy Holderness
Director: Terry Gilliam
Original release form / venue:
Current Availability and formats: The movie is available on DVD and Blu Ray. Various scenes are available on youtube.
Genre: The movie tries to be a lot of things. It’s mainly a drama, but it throws in two romances and Robin Williams makes most anything he’s in part comedy.
Story outline: Jack Lucas is a wealthy dark radio talk show host in New York who unknowingly and unwittingly provokes a caller to kill seven people (and then the caller himself) in a nightclub. Jack falls into a despair and is on the verge of suicide when he is rescued by a crazy homeless man (“Perry”). When Jack learns that Perry’s wife was killed by the caller that Jack provoked, Jack finds himself bound to Perry. Jack wants to make things right with Perry but he does not know how. Jack initially tries money, but Perry wants help stealing what he believes is the holy grail (a cup he has seen in a magazine that is in the house of a wealthy New Yorker). Jack learns of Perry’s infatuation with a lonely woman (Lydia) and undertakes to help Perry meet her. During all his efforts, Jack struggles with his work (non-existent) and his own relationship with his live-in girlfriend.
When Jack succeeds in getting Perry and Lydia together, he feels good about himself again and starts working in radio again. He also leaves his girlfriend who helped him through his dark period. But when he learns that Perry has been attacked and reentered a catatonic state from the shock of his wife’s murder, Jack is drawn back to Perry. Fighting his own guilt and in desperation, Jack steals the holy grail for Perry, and Perry wakes from his catatonic state and is able to talk about his wife’s death.
Film language / elements: Camera angles are very important throughout the film. At the beginning when Jack’s life is good, many scenes are shown – or at least start – from above. When Jack falls into despair, the scenes are shown or started from below. As Jack’s position changes during the film, so do the camera angles.
Music is another important element. Perry sings How About You in a variety of contexts throughout the movie (with his homeless friends, to Lydia, to fellow patients in the hospital and with Jack).
The film is generally without much color, except for Perry’s delusional scenes of terror when he sees a red knight as a symbol of the terror of the night his wife died. The red is a reflection of her blood and Perry’s terror.
Audience / cultural context elements: The target audience is older adults. The pace is somewhat slow and the subject matter would appeal to people who have suffered loss. It also probably would appeal to an urban audience more than a rural one.
There is a brief scene of extreme bloody violence. And there is an abundance of profane language. For this reason, the film would not be appropriate for children or sensitive adults. With appropriate warnings and parental consent, the film could be used with senior high school students.
Theology is found: The theology of the film is largely implicit although there are a few brief religious references (to the Holy Grail and to a discussion about God and the devil).
Theological themes for conversation: The film touches on a lot of theological themes. Questions that could be discussed include:
How do people respond to loss / what are ways to grieve?
How we are redeemed?
How do we ask for forgiveness from others? From ourselves?
Why do we help others?
Do we each have a quest?
What is the purpose of marriage?
Recommended ways to view and engage the film: This is an easy film to use because there are so many different themes running throughout it. One option would be to have people watch the movie in advance and then discuss a different question each session. Another option would be to show individual clips targeted towards specific questions.
To discuss redemption and how we seek forgiveness from others, I would show scene eight where Jack gives Perry $70 through Perry losing it on the street in front of the mansion when Jack starts telling him he knows who Perry is. The scene highlights how Jack tries to buy forgiveness and how his guilt compels him to pay more. It shows how we often give with strings attached, and the difference between how others view us and how we view ourselves.
To discuss why we help others, I’d show the first part of scene 10 where the veteran begs in Grand Central Station while he talks to Jack. The film does a good job of showing the masses from the beggars’ perspective. The scene would serve as a foundation to discuss why people give, why people look or do not look at beggars, and how people think of beggars (if at all).
Scene 4, where Perry describes his quest for the Holy Grail to Jack, could be used to discuss what the Holy Grail is for each of us, how we often need others, and our reluctance to help. If also could prompt discussion about whether we have a quest in life and what we are willing to do to achieve our quest.
Although this movie probably would not support an entire class about marriage, the scene between Jack and Anne when she discusses her view of God and the devil (approximately 1:03:40 to 1:04:40) could be used with other material to start a discussion about the purpose of marriage.
Conclusion: This movie has a lot of potential on a lot of topics; the difficulty may be in keeping any discussion focused on the topic of the day. The constant profane language may offend some, but with a proper disclosure, I think this film could be effectively used with adults.