Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.
Terry Gilliam has fought with every ounce of blood and every bone in his body to get The Man Who Killed Don Quixote made for 29 years. He began working on the film in 1989, but didn’t secure funding until 1998. Production on the film has been on and off since August of 2000 with the likes of Jean Rochefort, Robert Duvall, Ewan McGregor, John Hurt, and Johnny Depp involved with the project over the years. After eight attempts and 17 years since the hellish battle was showcased in the 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote became the most cursed film in cinematic history. Debuting at Cannes in 2018 and seemingly being released theatrically in every foreign market that same year (although that lawsuit upon release didn’t help matters), Gilliam’s deep-rooted passion project finally hit US shores on April 10, 2019 even if it was only for one night.
Adam Driver stars as Toby, an advertising director so wrapped up in himself that he’s never able to see anything else. Toby is seen as a creative visionary, but he’s lost all motivation for his current project; a commercial which includes Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in the Spanish countryside. During a company dinner, Toby’s boss (played by Stellan Skarsgard) encourages Toby to find inspiration where he least expects it. Toby discovers the college film he made about Don Quixote many years prior in a Gypsy’s (Oscar Jaenada) cluttered belongings and obsesses over the man he chose to play the part; a shoemaker named Javier (Jonathan Pryce). Shot in the Spanish town of Los Suenos, Toby soon realizes that the town isn’t far from where he’s shooting his commercial. But Los Suenos was tainted by Toby’s desire to make it to Hollywood and Javier now believes he is the actual Don Quixote.
Terry Gilliam’s essence is sewn into the Toby character. The screenplay for Gilliam’s long-gestating expedition into madness feels like it’s gone untouched for nearly three decades, but there had to have been an overwhelming sense of frustration for Gilliam as he saw something he visualized in his head materialize and then violently implode on more than one occasion. Toby rarely cares about anyone other than himself over the course of the film; this is his vision, his well-being is on the line, and his satisfaction is the only thing that matters to the character. After multiple attempts at getting this film made, Gilliam was probably forced into that mindset; it doesn’t matter what it takes to get this thing finished I just want to get it done.
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The film is trying to say something about the art of filmmaking. There’s a love for practical effects, shooting on location, and a dedication for the film to match the director’s vision. In a way, this would be the perfect swan song to Terry Gilliam’s 43-year stint as a film director. He just turned 78 in November of 2018 and his long gestating film thought to be unfilmable has finally been completed. The film addresses that an artist simply can’t create art without being cruel and crazy. Gilliam has proven how delightfully bonkers he is over the years, but it makes you wonder what cruel behavior one of the original members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus had to resort to as a project of this magnitude with this kind of reputation and such high expectations to finally complete such a production. Maybe this is something that will be addressed in the follow-up documentary to Lost in La Mancha entitled He Dreamed of Giants.
At its core, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a film about contagious schizophrenia; a delusion of grandeur stretched to its absolute limitations. The story structure of the film is bizarre since we could be witnessing either fantasy or reality on screen. Why we have to endure the whole windmill debacle on three separate occasions is kind of baffling, but this fantastical world that Toby is thrown into as he pals around with Don Quixote on a slow moving donkey often parallels what was transpiring in the reality the film introduced early on like Toby’s greediness and a damsel constantly being in distress.
After nearly 30 years of development, there’s a sense of triumph with Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Adam Driver is exceptional as he embodies greed and desire in a way no one else can and Jonathan Pryce rides the waves of hysteria as elegantly as possible as he invokes the audience with absurd humor, unfaltering honor, and a crushing blow of sympathy. However, the film simply isn’t weird enough for a Terry Gilliam film. The adventure comedy is uncharacteristically grounded in reality for the majority of its 132-minute duration with only the final act branching out into Gilliam levels of weirdness. Most of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote comes off as a watered down version of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. It’s as if Gilliam spent three decades fighting so hard just to get this film finished that the screenplay suffered and didn’t get the same attention it likely deserved.
© 2019 Chris Sawin