Terry Gilliam is the twisted mind behind such marvelously mind-bending films as Brazil, Time Bandits and Twelve Monkeys. Yet his legacy was threatened to be defined by the movie he couldn’t get made. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was to be an adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th-century novel, with a very Gilliam twist. He began pitching the project in the early ’90s, telling the press he was eyeing Sean Connery for the role of the romantic but mad knight-errant. In the early 2000s, he—at long last—began mounting the production. But it was doomed. Its disintegration was breathlessly chronicled in the astounding behind-the-scenes documentary Lost In La Mancha, which made The Man Who Killed Don Quixote more than a failed production. Speaking to and for frustrated artists of all media, it became a symbol for the struggles of creation. Beyond that, Gilliam’s passion project became an object of fantasy to his fans. “And now,” begins the opening titles of the finally completed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, “After 25 years in the making and unmaking…” It’s here. But can a movie that’s spent decades living in our collective imagination live up to expectations?
Watching The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, I experienced a recurring sense of déjà vu. Though I haven’t seen Lost In La Mancha in years, pieces still clung the caverns of my memory. And here they were re-enacted with new actors. The saddle once filled by late Jean Rochefort then to be filled by the late John Hurt now seats Jonathan Pryce. Adam Driver has stepped into the lead role almost-originated by Johnny Depp. And while Driver’s ferocious bravado is uniquely his own, the phantom of Depp lurks in Gilliam’s character design. Driver’s nearly shoulder-length dark hair is paired with a scraggly goatee, seeming a nod to Depp’s long-standing look. He wears a bangle of beads around his wrist, and at one point throws on a long scarf and wide-brimmed hat. And it’s impossible not to think of Depp, whose style became increasingly defined by his dependence on accessories. Between this and some rampaging giants, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote feels like an echo of the movie it almost was. Which proved a jarring distraction.
But what’s it all about? Scripted by Gilliam and Tony Grisoni, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote centers on Toby (Driver), a “visionary” commercial director who is on a shoot in Spain, but has lost touch with his inspiration. He’s depleted from being surrounded by Yes Men, moneymen, and women who are too tempting a distraction. Then, he rediscovers his student film, an adaptation of Don Quixote. Curious about what became of the non-actors he’d cast so many years before, Toby searches them out in a small Spanish village. Seeking out the shoemaker (Pryce) who was his lead, Toby is disturbed to learn Javier believes himself to be the real Don Quixote. Reluctantly, Toby is dragged into misadventures as this deluded man’s Sancho. The lines of reality and fantasy blur as they battle with cops, take cover in junkyards, and attempt to rescue Dulcinea (Joana Ribeiro), the local girl Toby “discovered” years before and now is shunned by her father as a “whore.”
Toby is Gilliam, and Gilliam is Don Quixote. These are bold men fueled by an “impossible dream”—to steal from the Don Quixote musical Man of La Mancha. They are resolute. They are wild. They are maybe mad, pursuing a vision that is grand and perhaps impossible. For Quixote, it is restoring virtue and chivalry. For Toby and Gilliam, it is creating cinema that is purely theirs. But this was a parallel between Gilliam and Quixote has beautifully developed in Lost In La Mancha. So here again we have an echo. Here again, Driver steps into a performance we’ve seen before, playing a version of Gilliam that’s a serious glow up. It’s art imitating life which was imitating art. And its slathered in messy self-indulgence.
In casting a Don Quixote-obsessed director who is hailed as a visionary but has a hard time appeasing the financiers, Gilliam cast the roguishly charismatic and handsome Driver. Then he surrounds Toby with women who—even when annoyed by him—hunger for his attention. Beautiful women fling themselves at Toby. Who cares if their characters are thinly drawn?! There are generous dives into garish delirium, where Toby’s crew transform into poshly garnished aristocrats and courtiers and where windmills become ravenous giants. Along the way, Gilliam’s spirit-double Toby will be dressed down, pitched into dirt, debased, and made to reconsider how he sees himself and the world. Specifically, the film director will be forced to confront how his promises of fame and fortune destroyed the lives of the rural villagers he once enchanted. Yet within this tale of humiliation and redemption, there’s an unnerving feigned humility. For even as Gilliam runs his double through the ringer, he reminds us constantly how powerful Toby is!
The film director is God! Savior! Executioner! His goodwill or indifference shapes the lives of those around him, be it shattering marriages, pitching crew members under the bus, or leaving a teen girl with wildly unrealistic expectations that lead her down a path of broken dreams and slut shaming. There are some interesting things going on in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. The slipperiness between fantasy and reality speaking to the surreal culture of filmmaking where the personal and persona can blur without mercy. But Gilliam’s self-reflection feels ego-centric and shockingly shallow, especially considering he’s been working on this film for 25 years!
Now you might ask: But what if you don’t know the backstory on this production? What if you’ve never seen Lost In La Mancha? What if you just want a weird movie or you like Adam Driver? Well, I’m a film critic, not a prognosticator. So, I won’t predict what you’ll make of this movie. But I will say this: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a very Gilliam movie. It’s a bonkers adventure studded with strange characters and surreal sequences, swathed in scrappy style, and spiked with melancholy and off-kilter humor. Driver brings a vicious verve and Pryce is game in moments of madness and pathos Together they are compelling. The movie itself is fine, almost vaguely satisfying. But perhaps after all these years The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was never going to live up to the movie we’d built in our heads. Maybe that was an impossible dream.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote will hit theaters April 19.
Header Image Source: Screen Media