As the lights dimmed and Terry Gilliam’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” began, it hit me that I was seeing a movie that I never imagined would be made in my lifetime. I thought, I can’t believe I’m actually seeing this. Gilliam clearly realizes that most in the audience are hearing my reaction, as the pre-title credits declare “and finally, a movie 25 years in the making.” I’d have to think back as far as opening night of “Eyes Wide Shut” or the first screening of “The Phantom Menace” (both the same summer) to compare another experience where a film’s opening day anticipation and pre-release legacy was equally staggering.
Adam Driver stars as Toby, a narcissistic, self destructive filmmaker who appears to have sold out and developed a detached mean streak in his life and work. While filming his latest project in Spain, Toby reminisces (in cleverly interspersed flashbacks) about the time he made a great student film based on Cervantes’ “Don Quixote.” Returning to the scene of his former glory, Toby discovers that his leading lady has lead a sad life once filming commenced and that the cobbler-turned-actor who portrayed Quixote (Jonathan Pryce) is still playing the part…because he thinks he is Quixote. As Toby’s life spirals into surreal danger, he unwittingly becomes a Sancho Panzo to a Quixote who is newly unleashed (in every sense of the word) and partaking on another quest.
“The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” is one of Gilliam’s most focused and accessible works, with a clarity to the narrative that is rare in most Gilliam films; while the question of what’s real and what is a hallucination experienced by the characters) is constantly in question, the episodic screenplay is simple enough for Gilliam newcomers to follow but rich with enough subtext to dazzle the faithful. Driven by two superb lead performances, a robust score by Roque Banos, an unpredictable story and grand widescreen cinematogrpahy, Gilliam’s latest his lots going for it. While the final revelation for the main characters is obvious, it’s clearly in line with Gilliam’s grand point: that filmmaking is about infecting everyone around with a shared madness.
Although its admirably nuts, always fascinating and wonderful for long passages, Gilliam’s likely-to-be-most-dissected work still frustrates. On an emotional level, this is a distancing work, a quality that none of his prior works (not even his polarizing but moving “The Zero Thoerum”) has ever evoked. While the developing relationship between Toby and Pryce’s Quixote comes to a turning point in the third act and the Toby/Don Quixote union is as amusing as it is tragic, nothing here moved me like it should have. By contrast, to return again to Gilliam’s prior work, the Christophe Waltz-starring “The Zero Theorum,’ is among Gilliam’s most visually overstuffed but, at its center, contained a love story and a central character with emotionally rich, intriguing layers. While Gilliam’s latest holds an unquestionable fascination (both for what’s on the screen and the remarkable story behind it), it concludes on a note both busy and unsatisfying.
While there’s droll humor throughout, I expected it to be funnier. In ways both complimentary and lacking, its more of a companion piece (in terms of plot, themes and the two duo protagonists and their shifting state of reality) to “The Fisher King” than a true Gilliam masterpiece. However, whereas “The Fisher King” still resonates as milestone of a Gilliam work as succesful creatively as it was recieved with audicnes and critics, “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” is likely to be as picked apart and appreciated in full further down the road. It’s this year’s “The Other Side of the Wind,” as an appreciation for its tortured gestation, delayed completion and reflection of its director’s inner life is as valid a consideration as whether the film is any good on its own for the uninitiated. Perhaps the greatest quality of Gilliam’s film as it stands is that it doesn’t appear beaten down, compromised or malnourished (in terms of production values or the realization of Gilliam’s vision) in the slightest. If anything, the reportedly $14 million budget seems just-right, whereas the one planned $30-million, Johhny Depp version that got canned (and thrillingly captured in the great “Lost in La Mancha” documentary from 2003) would likely have been overstuffed and, to take a wild guess, as self indulgent as Gilliam’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.”
Driver plays his role in an entirely real, reactionary manner, which is exactly the right choice; he carries the film and always gives the audience a center who grows as a character and a shelter of sanity when the grip of Quixote’s visions becomes dizzying. As the cobbler-turned-uber-Method actor, Pryce goes all-in. If his forceful turn as Quixote falls short of definitive, this is still an impressive, firing-on-all-cilanders turn that the film absolutely needed to work. The two actors are especially strong together in the final act, when true poignancy and tragedy enters the story.
Its oddly contemporary, including a Trump joke that, while fitting in the moment, is too much of a throwaway to land like Gilliam intended. A wild third act has not just Toby and Quixote playing a mental volleyball match of who’s crazier but all of the supporting characters, who partake in a costumed charade that accentuates their inner selves. It’s a clever sequence, even as it just-barely manages not to go completely off the rails.
Gilliam’s work suggests he’s been making movies about Don Quixote long before he completed this film. Perhaps there is no better an extension of the Cervantes story as filtered through Gilliam than “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.” Yet, even Gilliam’s great “12 Monkeys” (with its Bruce Willis/Brad Pitt combo), “The Fisher King” (the Robin Wiliams/Jeff Bridges characters) and “The Imaginarium od Doctor Parnassus” (the roles played by Christopher Plummer and Andrew Garfield) offer Quioxte/Panzo figures and are powered by tales of troubled man, past their prime, pushing through life with a follwoer at their side as reality continues to shift around them. Indeed, Gilliam is Quixote, which isn’t a bad thing. As devotees of Cervantes’ work will note, Quixote’s visions of fantasy keep him alive and bring out the wild side (and frustrations) of those around him. In truth, Gilliam’s career is astounding even without the existence of this remarkable film but I’m grateful it exists…I still can’t believe I saw it in a movie theater in my lifetime. I suspect Gilliam feels the same way.
–originally published in Hollywood in Toto