The Man Who Killed Don Quixote - Review

A legendary film 30 years in the making, Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is an odd and convoluted beast: neither a misstep nor a grand statement, but somewhere in between.

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Like the literary figure it’s based on, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is absorbed in an alternate reality. It’s a jumble of comments on art, politics, and what’s real for a man with a purpose. There’s plenty to like in Terry Gilliam’s 30-year passion project, but in that time, the purpose of his quest was lost, and muddied to near imperceptibility.

Gilliam began the shoot for Quixote in earnest in 2000. Flooding, disastrous weather, and unavailable actors caused the film to go through several rewrites, plot changes, and producers. A documentary was made of the time Gilliam spent trying to get his ambitious film together, and was released in 2003. In 2019, the subject of that film has been released for a one-night-only screening in America, to arrive on VOD later. It shares much in common with Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind, another long-gestating passion project that recently saw release, though Quixote doesn’t suffer from the same success.

Gilliam on set in 2000

Gilliam on set in 2000

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is the name of a fictional student film directed by Adam Driver’s lax creative genius, Toby. In the years since its release, the actor who played Quixote in it (Jonathan Pryce) has convinced himself he is the Knight of Sorrowful Countenance, and has been parading around 21st century Spain in search of adventure. Toby runs into him on a Quixote-themed commercial shoot, and the old man mistakes him for Sancho. Toby plays along to avoid police who are after him for causing trouble in the area, and the two journey across Spain in search of nothing in particular. The setup is complex, but not without merit: Pryce as Quixote is intriguing, and Driver carries the film far past his comic abilities, placed in situations both puzzling and life-threatening. The source material is ample for Gilliam’s taste, based around a crazed man who imagines himself to be knight-errant. When Quixote is reigned in, following through on this arc, it is a mildly rewarding action comedy, replete with gags and baffling costumes, but at a certain point the film becomes much more. The value of imagination, capitalism, satire; the final hour of the film touches nearly every beat Gilliam has covered in his career, and in such dizzying manor, it’s anyone’s guess what his message is.

Gilliam on set, 2017

Gilliam on set, 2017

Unfortunately (and that is the key phrase for the film), Quixote doesn’t capture the whimsy or eclecticism of Gilliam’s early films. It’s awash in beige lighting, over-complicated story arcs, and a lazily written pair of lead characters. The roles of Quixote and Toby, once attached to actors like John Hurt, Jean Rochefort, Johnny Depp and Ewan McGregor, are played with distinct yet surface-level charm by Pryce and Driver, respectively. Pryce, who Gilliam described as “patiently in the wings for 15 years” for the role, starred in Gilliam’s Brazil as an honest worker; a normal man sent spiraling by his neo-futurist surroundings. In Quixote he is down the rabbit hole from the start, serving a convincing portrait of Cervantes’s figure with humor, wit, and above all, ego. The cockiness, the need to rise after the most embarrassing defeat: Pryce remains watchable throughout the film, even with wild narrative movements that put him at a perplexing disadvantage for a good chunk of the story. Driver is an excellent foil, playing the straight man for Pryce to bounce off of, which is exactly the ridiculous pairing Gilliam’s movies should include. His arc, however, concludes on an unsatisfying note, essentially saying that he is destined to become like the simple-minded Quixote, that in his world of reality and Trump and commercials, it is what should happen; that forced ignorance is the only way out. It makes sense for a senile old man, but not for the film’s protagonist.

Early in the film, Toby visits the town he shot his student film in ten years prior, and in a Spanish conversation between himself and a bar owner, he sweeps subtitles off the screen and claims “We don’t need this! We understand each other.” Often, it’s as if Gilliam feels the same way, eager to remove the red tape and allow his audience to try and make sense of whatever it is he wants to say.