Movie Review: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
Terry Gilliam’s quixotic film is finally in theaters. Was it worth the 25 year struggle?
Hollywood legends abound about directors caught in a fatal dance with a project they couldn’t quite let go. Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon. Alejandro Jodorosky’s Dune. Orson Welle’s Heart of Darkness. And Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote. Now that the long quest to bring The Man Who Killed Don Quixote to the theater is over, is the result glory or folly? A little of both, to be honest.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a beautifully shot film, conveying an artist’s vision. The story…less so. Much like the making of the film itself, Don Quixote feels adrift and over-burdened with implication for its first act. Once it settles into itself, it nearly becomes the delightfully bizarre creature we expect of a Gilliam film. Don Quixote remains tantalizingly almost right, which seems poetically fitting for the tale of a man living in a fantasy that he can’t quite make fit reality.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2019).
Toby (Adam Driver) is a listless and cynical ad executive. A daring and surreal student film, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, vaulted him to prominence, and he’s been coasting on that faded glory ever since. His latest project is a soulless cash grab, recreating scenes of his Don Quixote film in commercials to sell upscale Korean wind turbines. He’s frittering away his production budget and sleeping with the wife of his boss. When his duplicity starts to catch up to him, he flees the set.
He finds himself back in the small Spanish town in which he filmed his debut. He learns that his muse, Angelica (Joana Ribiero) continued to chase her dream of stardom, eventually with unsavory characters. Even more distressing, the old cobbler he cast as Quixote (Jonathan Pryce) went insane and never stopped believing he was the real Don Quixote. When he sees Toby, he believes him to be his long lost squire, Sancho Panza, and shanghais Toby. On the run from the police, his vengeful boss, and dangers both real and imagined, Toby and Quixote go on a strange adventure.
Location, Location, Location.
The settings in Don Quixote are inspired. In a post-feature “making of” short film, Gilliam talks about finding the right locations that matched his imagination. He certainly succeeded (though some of these location choices contributed to the epic failure of the first attempt to make the film.) Gilliam gets every ounce of voltage out of his settings, using fish-eye lenses, dutch angles, and a myriad other camera tricks to highlight the intrinsic beauty and baroque oddness of his sets.
The costuming and make-up are likewise flawless. Gilliam’s set pieces and vivid gala sequences could put Lanthimos’ The Favourite to shame. Putting the finishing touch on the impeccable nuts and bolts of the film, the music by Roque Baños (Don’t Breathe, In the Heart of the Sea) is perfectly suited to the scenes: ethereal and otherworldly, sumptuous and gaudy, and earthy and rustic by turns.
Tilting at Windmills.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote gets off to a rough start. The dialogue at the beginning is hard to follow and idiosyncratic. The inciting incident takes forever to arrive, and feels both belabored and under developed. It’s not till we finally get to Los Suenos and see flash backs of Toby making his film that the first half hour makes any real sense. It’s not until we meet Quixote that it becomes engaging.
One of the problems with the first act is that everything is rather unsubtle. The compromised artist, flash in the pan wunderkid elements feel like too thinly veiled self reference and meta commentary. Even the translation of the town Toby filmed his debut in, Los Suenos, is on the nose – “Dreams.” Everything about the commercial shoot is clichéd “soulless Hollywood machine” tropes. Everyone is frankly awful, even Toby. For the minuscule pay-off of “Toby learns not to be a specifically Hollywood-type jerk”, it’s heavy handed. At base, it feels like a bit of artistic revenge, Gilliam throwing the studio system’s dirty laundry out on the yard.
Nightmares and Dreamscapes.
Once we finally hit the road with Quixote, the film’s style and narrative start to mesh. The “movie about a movie about a book” aspect create a hall of mirrors where we get motifs and archetypes warped and turned back on themselves. At least three people are playing Quixote/Sancho characters, and many of the side characters also are doubled and tripled. Part of this comes from the meta-movie, but also from Quixote’s fevered imagination casting people we’ve met as characters from Cervante’s picaresque novel. Of all of the fantasy elements, this recurring recasting of people and events brings the most visceral pleasure.
Gilliam’s movies are famous for daydreams and fantasies being brought to life, blurring the lines between sanity and insanity, reality and illusion. Several sequences in Don Quixote rise to those levels -notably the final gala, which brings all of the costume, music, and architecture into a splendid symphony of surrealism. Unfortunately, the film does not dwell in these dreams long enough. Unlike Gilliam’s best works such as Brazil or The Adventures of Baron Münchhausen, the narrative doesn’t blend fantasy and reality often enough. I wanted the film to be weirder, not just because Gilliam is so good at it, but because it would have situated the perspective of the film.
Much of what I didn’t like in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote comes down to the choice to invest in Toby instead of Quixote. The poison pen moments at the beginning and the lack of consistently surreal imagery both derive from needing to make Toby’s experience the center of the narrative. We’ve seen Gilliam cover the redemption of a jaded artist before in The Fisher King, and that film succeeded because Robin William’s character was the heart of the piece. His character was not the story center per se, but his fantasies and neurosis were the dark mirror held up to Jeff Bridge’s character that pulled him back from the brink. We don’t get that in Don Quixote. Toby’s redemption comes more from his relationship with Angelica than with Quixote. Adam Driver and Joana Ribeiro do throw sparks when they interact, but Toby and Quixote never quite click.
Jonathan Pryce is marvelous, and his insouciant and aristocratic Quixote provides most of the best moments of the film. Unfortunately, we never get enough of him. He seems to appear and disappear in the narrative, and figures so little in the climax of the film that I was frustrated by it. Robin Williams’ Parry, John Neville’s Baron Münchhausen, and Jonathan Pryce’s office drone in Brazil all drove their films. Their charming brokenness gave the film its emotional heft. We only get flashes of that here.
Chasing a Fantasy.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was always going to be a fraught film to wrangle. Gilliam makes films that are intricate and stuffed with context. Picking apart his fantasies is practically a cottage industry. A film 25 years in the offing, labored over by a true artist, carries a heavy load. So was it all worth it?
I think it was. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a good film. In places it is a tremendous film. The craftsmanship is unimpeachable. The performances are excellent. It struggles in places with pace and focus. I would have liked it to zig in places that it zagged, but I was entertained thoroughly after Toby finds Quixote. It’s got layers and layers for days, so fans of Gilliam’s library will find another inspired tome to deconstruct. I can say that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is not my favorite Gilliam film, and that it seems to just miss capturing a resonance that some of his other works nailed. I can also say that I am immensely grateful that the stubborn bastard stuck with it and gave us his Don Quixote. Now only if the studio would show it for more than one day!