The Fisher King

A few years ago I read an interesting book called Crazy Like Us, which is about how mental illness manifests itself in different ways across the world. One of the more interesting examples was about schizophrenia. In America, a person is a schizophrenic; once they've been diagnosed that disorder becomes a permanent part of their identity. In other countries around the world, however, a schizophrenic episode can be explained as a temporary demonic possession; in those cases, there is a separation between the person and the disease, and the "real" person isn't blamed for an outbreak. It turns out that this is actually helpful for schizophrenics, because shifting the blame away from them puts less pressure on them, and lowering their anxiety levels can help cut back on the number of outbreaks. But even though the frequency of episodes is lower, there's still no getting around the fact that a schizophrenic remains a schizophrenic, and that episodes will continue to occur throughout their lives.

I bring this up because the Fisher King is a redemption story. Actually, it's two redemption stories that are bound together. The first story is about a selfish man who is redeemed by reaching out to help a sweet natured homeless man. The second story is about the redemption of the homeless man, who after a violent tragedy has alternated between periods of catatonia and periods of manic delusions. The first story is fine, as these things go, but it doesn't do much to distinguish itself from a lot of other middlebrow melodramas which aim to reaffirm basic moral lessons like the importance of charity. But the redemption of the schizophrenic man - that's another can of worms.

Mental illness is often mishandled in films, especially films that want to embody the fairy-tale structure that Hollywood movies have, where problems build to a crescendo, get solved, and then there's a happily-ever-after. There is no happily-ever-after with most mental illnesses. Some of them can be treated; many can be managed; but even those best case scenarios leave behind their own scars. The Fisher King pushes far too hard on the idea that it's schizophrenic character can be saved for it's own good. It tries to literally embody the fairy tale structure by embodying the disease as a Red Knight that has to be fought, as if a brain dysfunction could be defeated in fair combat. But fairy tales aren't real, and I'm not buying into the idea that the Red Knight can really be defeated by a few acts of generosity from a stranger.

Even worse, by tying the two stories together we can't get a happy ending in one without a happy ending in the other. If the schizophrenic character cannot come back from the brink of madness then our selfish jerk character hasn't actually accomplished the good deed that he's been working towards. The movie builds towards an all or nothing conclusion, and I'm too cynical to believe that winning is possible in a story about legitimate madness.

There are parts of the Fisher King that are good - Terry Gilliam is (as always) a visually bold director, and the two leads are embodied with a warmth of spirit that is a good fit for a story about the redemptive power of kindness. But while all of that is well and good, you can't accept the movie without accepting it's treatment of mental illness, and I just couldn't buy into that. Which is a shame, because all of it's principle talent are generally so good. Who knows, maybe it wasn't their fault; maybe they just got possessed by a demon this time, but they'll be back to normal again soon.

Winner: The Cat

The Fisher King on IMDB