Terry Gilliam’s infamous film is finally done, but was it worth the wait?
This film was reviewed out of Fantastic Fest 2018.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote doesn’t live up to the huge expectations for it built up by its legendary setbacks, but there are moments of mad genius in this intensely personal film about the love of art.
No matter the actual quality of the film, it can’t be denied that the very existence of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a cinematic triumph, and Terry Gilliam certainly knows it. “And now… after more than 25 years of making… and unmaking” announces the film’s opening credits, winking at the long and troubled production of Gilliam’s white whale of a movie. “Finally… a Terry Gilliam film.” With setbacks more grandiose than anything in the classic novel it’s loosely based on, it is impossible not to get excited at the prospect of Gilliam’s magnum opus actually being a reality (alas, there’s still no domestic distributor lined up for it yet). Sadly, it was never going to live up to the years of anticipation, and the final film is a messy, if unique, experience that wasn’t worth the wait.
Gilliam’s original aborted production for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote would have mixed magical realism with a touch of sci-fi, as the director wanted to use A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court as the inspiration for a plot that involved a man traveling back and forth between the 21st century and the magical 17th century. The final product scrapped that subplot, and instead we have a film about film itself and filmmakers. We open on a movie set, as Toby (Adam Driver) directs a commercial loosely based on the famous windmill scene in which Don Quixote, a wannabe-knight errant obsessed with bringing chivalry back, attempts to kill a windmill he believes to be a giant. Unable to finish the scene, Toby discovers a bootleg copy of his student film, a black-and-white film aptly titled The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, and decides to return to the Spanish villa where he’d shot it to seek inspiration.
In the town, Toby realizes that his film shoot caused a lot of negative side effects on the local community. First there’s Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), who played The Girl; Toby admits, shamefully, that he never gave her a name, something which isn’t far off from Gilliam’s own passively sexist treatment of female characters. Then there’s Jacqui (Olga Kurylenko), the wife of Toby’s boss, who only serves as Toby’s obsessed lover, a village girl whom Toby wooed when she was just 15 (!) and later – drunk on dreams of becoming an actress after her first role – moved to Madrid, where she had to start working as an escort to pay the bills. The other notable victim of Toby’s filmmaking dreams is Javier (the excellent Jonathan Pryce), a non-actor shoemaker who, in some of the best scenes in the film, learns not to act, but to completely inhabit the character. We learn that, in the years since shooting the film, Javier became convinced that he is the real Don Quixote and that Toby is his loyal squire Sancho Panza. Riddled with guilt, Toby will eventually join Javier on his “quest,” which little by little blurs the line between delusion and reality.
Adam Driver is outstanding at balancing the fantasy and reality aspects demanded of him in the story, and successfully pushing his deadpan to goofy at a moment’s notice. He plays Toby as the most grounded character in the film, a cynical and arrogant egomaniac with no nuance or regard for budget or production schedules and who is constantly fighting with financiers and producers (just one of the many winks to Gilliam himself), until he too starts to wonder if there is something to Javier’s hallucination. The real standout is Jonathan Pryce as the titular Don Quixote (or Javier, depending on what you believe to be the film’s reality), who perfectly encapsulates Javier’s borderline insanity and optimism. He remains ever hopeful in his quest, even as he is considered a joke by everyone else, and Pryce’s delivery manages to be mournful and yet also deeply cheerful.
This is, without a doubt, the most difficult film to divorce from its production context, as Gilliam constantly winks at the film’s own troubled production, an infamous story of development hell that’s already inspired two documentaries. If there’s one comparable film to The Man Who Killed Don Quixote it’s Federico Fellini’s masterpiece 8½, which also had a tormented production. Fellini famously said that he was “a director who wanted to make a film he no longer remembers.” Gilliam himself has become something of a Quixote, trying desperately to make an idea into reality, a visionary fighting against his times, and the commerce of filmmaking, not stopping to think whether its time had past.
Gillian’s fixation with filming in Spain pays off, as the vast Spanish landscapes give The Man Who Killed Don Quixote a realistic look that fits with the magical realism of the film, and the production design does wonders in making you think – like its titular knight errant – that simple villages can be fantastical and huge locations. The film’s biggest set piece, an intricate costume party at a medieval castle, is as grandiose as anything in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Complimenting this atmosphere of grandeur is Roque Baños’ score, which combines a traditional orchestra with Spanish guitars and sounds, making you feel transported to the era of chivalry. Yet while the visuals and score lend the film a distinctive feel, the excessively long film suffers from a muddled narrative that doesn’t pay off. As the film progresses, it loses what made the first 20 minutes fun in favor of a series of unfunny slapstick sketches and arcs that go nowhere. When one of your characters asks if there is a plot after being confused about what’s happening, you know you have problems.