Cast: Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce, Stellan Skarsgård, Olga Kurylenko
Director: Terry Gilliam
Running time: 2 hours 13 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote opens with a title card that reads “25 years in the making—and unmaking.” It’s a wry commentary; referencing both the film’s torturous production history and thematic ideas embedded into the finished project itself. Its the kind of thing a filmmaker like Gilliam does well; using a preexisting text (in this case, Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote) and creating a dialogue with it. The idea of who owns art, how it should be translated, and the cyclical nature of stories is central to Gilliam’s take on what many believe is an unadaptable book. Instead of attempting the impossible, Gilliam chooses to use the novel’s heroic archetypes and graft his own sensibilities onto the framework. It’s a clever touch, and one that benefits from the director’s usual freewheeling style and manic quirkiness.
Don Quixote is played, in a winning bit of casting, by Jonathan Pryce. As it turns out, Quixote isn’t the iconic Cervantes character after all, but a poor cobbler named Javier discovered by egotistical director Toby Grummett (Adam Driver) while scouting for his student film. After a period of 10 years, Toby returns to Los Sueños to helm an expensive Quixote-themed commercial commissioned by his boss (Stellan Skarsgård), who wants to sign a contract with a Russian-led vodka company. During this early stretch, Toby is portrayed as an apathetic sell-out going through the motions, out of ideas and leaking money by the day. He’s a man caught inside a corporate machine which has strangled out any hints of creativity; a feeling Gilliam himself is well aware of over the course of his rocky career in Hollywood.
Burnt out and in desperate need of inspiration, Toby takes a motorcycle from the set and heads off in search of the town and villagers from his student film. What he finds is dispiriting; with former cast members either having died from illness, given into madness, or in the case of Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), a fetching teenager whom Toby had promised to make into a movie star, moving into the realm of escort service. Perhaps most tragic is his encounter with Javier, who so fully embodied the role of Quixote in the student film that he became deluded into thinking that he was, in fact, the legendary character. From there, the young director hooks up with the deluded Javier and the two venture off on a madcap quest where Toby unwittingly takes on the role of Sancho Panza.
Of course, Toby is a stand-in for Gilliam, but The Man Who Killed Don Quixote doesn’t simply work on a meta level. There are elements taken directly from Cervantes’s novel—Javier’s delusions of seeing windmills as giants, women cursed with beards, a knight covered in mirrored armor—but Gilliam takes these familiar episodes and alters the context, blurring the line between reality and artifice. This really comes into focus during the film’s final act, where our heroes end up inside a castle with inhabitants cast as whores, peasants, damsels, and royal knights dressed in period appropriate costumes. Toby suddenly takes on the mantle of noble savior swooping in to save Angelica, who is engaged to a wealthy misogynist Russian thug, and consequently, Gilliam seems to be playing this adventure yarn straight. Javier embodies the sacrificial lamb trope and Toby is exalted to hero status, but is the film really becoming the very thing it’s playfully satirizing?
Vanity and self-worship is a trap, one that Toby and by extension, Gilliam are not immune to. There’s a possibility that Gilliam is questioning his place within the cinematic pantheon here, using iconography from his past work and commenting on it (much like Fellini did in his later years). Like most of the filmmaker’s projects, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote has an odd rhythm and often gives in to self-indulgence; with inconsistent pacing, hit and miss visual gags, and several scenes where characters simply yell over one another. Still, such criticisms can also be read as reasons for Gilliam’s legitimate artistry. He’s a filmmaker always taking chances. Always throwing ideas at the wall. Constantly pushing himself to complete his vision, even if it takes 25 years, and there’s ultimately something hopeful about that.