If you’re under the age of 30, then Terry Gilliam has been trying to make and release The Man Who Killed Don Quixote for longer than you’ve been alive. He began developing the story in 1989, and finally started shooting the film in 2000, but after suffering from scheduling conflicts, an actor’s poor health, and bad weather, production was cancelled. For the next 18 years, Gilliam would face everything from legal battles to financial problems in trying to get the film made but he finally succeeded in 2017, and it premiered at Cannes Film Festival the following year.
Inspired by Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel, the film is about Toby (Adam Driver), a dejected advertising director who finds himself back in the same part of rural Spain where he shot his student film, ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’, a decade ago. He tries to reconnect with the locals he worked with, but a lot has changed in 10 years. His young protégée, Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), has grown up and left the village, much to her father’s dismay. His Don Quixote, an unassuming cobbler named Javier (Jonathan Pryce), has adopted the identity of his character and now spends his days ina shabby cabin-turned-tourist-attraction dedicated to the film. Believing that he really is the chivalrous knight he once played, Javier mistakes Toby for Quixote’s squire, Sancho Panza, and drags him into his world of adventure and delusion. As Toby reluctantly goes along with Javier’s mad fantasy, it begins to rub off on him, and the line between dreams and reality starts to blur.
The film’s entire plot is so convoluted that, like Toby, you often can’t tell what’s real and what isn’t. But what is Don Quixote if not incredibly chaotic? The very nature of his world demands confusion, and the film delivers on that front for the most part. However, the plot descends into complete anarchy by the third act and the novelty wears off quickly, making the rest of the film a slog to get through.
Gilliam’s apparent affinity for canted angles grows equally tiresome. Although it starts off as a meaningful technique that reflects the characters’ distorted sense of reality, it soon becomes overused to the point of exhaustion. Quixote is not one for subtlety, of course, but expressive cinematography doesn’t stop at canted angles.
This might have been Gilliam’s passion project, but it really belongs to the actors. The two lead roles were recast multiple times during the film’s time in development hell, with the likes of Robert Duvall and Ewan MacGregor having been signed on at one point, but it’s hard to imagine anyone as these characters but Jonathan Pryce and Adam Driver.
Pryce’s Javier is barmy but lovable. You can’t help but feel sorry him as he falls deeper into his Quixote illusion, mistaking windmills for villainous giants and hurting himself to prove his love to his fictional sweetheart, Dulcinea. Toby, on the other hand, is the kind of asshole you love to hate. He’s egotistical, impatient and brash, and Driver’s portrayal of him is arguably the actor’s greatest comedic performance to date. Whether he’s speaking Spanish, kissing a goat, or riding a donkey he’s too tall for, Driver gives everything he’s got and then some.
Not much can be said of the female characters, who are sadly underdeveloped and treated poorly. There’s Jacqui (Olga Kurylenko), the wife of Toby’s boss, who is only there to seduce Toby. And then there’s Joana Ribeiro, who is great as Angelica but ultimately exists to serve the male characters around her.
“I want to get this film out of my life so that I can get on with the rest of my life,” said Gilliam in 2016, and this frustration shows in parts of the film that feel rushed and uncared for. But despite its flaws, its mere existence as a completed, feature-length film is miraculous. With The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, you go to simply satisfy your curiosity for this long-awaited, possibly cursed, film but you stay for the entertaining and memorable performances that just about make it worthwhile.
Directed by: Terry Gilliam
Written by: Terry Gilliam, Tony Grisoni
Cast: Adam Driver, Jonathan Price, Olga Kurylenko, Stellan Skarsgard, Joana Ribeiro