He did it! Gilliam did it! He finally gave birth to THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE, a passion project so long-gestating that it surely suffered a cinematic form of gestational diabetes. Let the streamers and confetti fly! Let the strange carnival of Gilliam-esque characters, fire-breathers, and janky marionettes march the streets in a surreal celebratory procession in honor of his wonderful achievement. Yes, after 29 years of suffering creative constipation, Terry Gilliam has found laxative-like relief, gifting us with a big, steaming load of THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE to baffle our senses.
Commercial director Toby (Adam Driver) is shooting a project in Spain, not too far from where he made a student film based on the story of Don Quixote ten years earlier. After a gypsy gives him a DVD copy of his decade-old film, he makes the trek to the town where he made it. There, he reconnects with Javier (Jonathan Pryce), a kooky old man who starred in his film. Javier has gone off the deep end and is convinced he really is the actual literary character, Don Quixote. The pair go on an adventure together and surreality ensues.
There are a lot of stipulations in finding enjoyment here. First of all, it helps to have familiarity with Gilliam as a filmmaker and a personality. He’s a unique cinematic voice, and in many ways, QUIXOTE is a culmination of his entire career. It also helps enormously to see the 2002 documentary, Lost in La Mancha, which aside from being one of the best movies out there about filmmaking, chronicles Gilliam’s closest attempt at getting QUIXOTE off the ground prior to finding success with the final product we have now. The original plan involved Johnny Depp and veteran French actor, Jean Rochefort, who were both on set for 5 days before the production fell into development hell where it stayed until now.
After several subsequent failures-to-start involving Ewan McGregor, John Hurt, Jack O’Connell and Michael Palin, Gilliam finally found success with Driver and Pryce. It wasn’t until April 2019 that Gilliam’s legal battle with an ex-producer subsided and the finished film was allowed release outside of a select few European countries, so let’s hope that after that one last hurdle, the film’s curse is over. I fear that now I’ve watched it, I may only have 7 days to live. I’ve been hearing about this movie for as long as I can remember, and now that it’s here, I’m don’t know if the wait was worth it.
In deciphering Gilliam’s intentions, It would probably also help viewers to read the original Don Quixote text by Cervantes, because my cursory knowledge of its placement within the literary canon wasn’t quite enough to put the pieces together without help from the trusty internet. Yes, with some further research on the film, I was able to put my brain back into order and sort of comprehend what I watched.
However, I’m sure it will all make complete sense for those whose parents bought them a degree in film studies. There’s no ifs or buts – this is a weird, disjointed film. In other words: It’s a Gilliam film. The plot flows less like a river than it does a shotgun blast fired into the sky and the buckshot allowed to rain down haphazardly upon the viewer. I’m convinced the only person who knew what was going on in the film at any given time is Gilliam himself. Even Adam Driver, who gives it a good shot, is left with a perpetual look of confusion on his dial throughout.
If nothing else, it’s visually stunning, with the on-location shoot in Spain providing a breathtaking backdrop. The production design is exquisite, with many years of failed attempts to refine the visual style that Gilliam was aiming for. The costumes and sets are second to none, so even if your brain is confused by what’s going on, your eyes will at least be busy.
The pacing is busted, taking a long time to get to the meat, and once it does, there’s nothing convincing enough to make the journey worth it. The storytelling is somewhat episodic, with a stop/start nature that is often frustrating. Characters do things for inexplicable reasons, objects fly out of nowhere frequently and hit them in the head, knocking them out, and then they wake not knowing what is reality and what isn’t. The plot is hazy and convoluted beyond measure, which in any other film, would come across as incompetent, but here it’s done with such purpose that it convinces you that the problem is with you, the viewer, and not the filmmaker. But honestly… I think it’s just pure Gilliam.
Driver and Pryce headline the eccentric cast with flair. They’re brave simply by their presence and willingness to sign on to the project knowing its history. However, their performances rarely gel, and at times feel like they’re both acting in different films. There are strong moments, but everyone here is hopelessly lost in amongst the chaos of the plot.
As hard as the actors may try, the main character of the film is behind the camera. THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE is almost certainly semi-autobiographical. Two sides of Gilliam himself are imbued in the characters of Toby and Javier; one is the frustrated filmmaker, the other is the old man stuck in his ways, laughed at by modern society for refusing to move on and get with the times.
I find it hard to decide if THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE is a repulsive, incomprehensible vanity project, or a triumphant story of perseverance and passion. I personally think the finished film is equal parts both. It is, at its worst, conflictingly chaotic and boring. At its best, it’s admirable for Gilliam’s vision. I wouldn’t be surprised if this turns out to be his final film, because while it says everything Gilliam wanted it to say, it also feels like the product of a man who’s said everything he needs to.