The most uncharitable way to describe Terry Gilliam’s work is that it is solipsistic. Almost every film the director has made centers on a hero battling – not always successfully – to maintain his autonomy and individuality in a society obsessed with conformity. Gilliam’s characters rage against the system to protect their romantic, singular view of the world. The most satisfying of his films are those in which Gilliam is able to make us see the world through his protagonists’ eyes. His best films, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, 12 Monkeys, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, unlock the hero’s mind. His misses – The Fisher King, The Brothers Grimm – frustratingly fail to do so. We can see the vivid imagination of the central character, but only from the outside. We’re never allowed all the way in.
Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote belongs in the latter category. While the film does a good job of showing us what’s in its main character’s mind, it never quite gives us a sense of what’s on his mind. It’s a shame, considering the significant amount of blood and treasure Gilliam has invested in the project. Making it has been an obsession of his for 25 years now. The first attempt – chronicled in Lost in La Mancha, which started as a behind-the-scenes featurette but blossomed into a feature-length documentary – was abandoned after a string of disastrous bad luck, including a flood that ruined much of the equipment.
The quasi-source material, Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th century novel Don Quixote, is a natural fit for Gilliam. The character Quixote is the original outsider struggling against a system he hates and doesn’t fully understand. He’s the inspiration for the word quixotic, an essential quality in all of Gilliam’s protagonists. A straight adaptation of the novel from Gilliam would have been fascinating.
Instead, the director, who wrote the screenplay with frequent collaborator Tony Grisoni, made Don Quixote an element of a modern-day story. Gilliam’s real focus in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote isn’t Quixote at all, but an advertising director named Toby. The film industry has jaded Toby, who is uninspired and on location in Spain, remaking his student film adaptation of Don Quixote from a decade ago as a commercial.
This meta element of the film allows Gilliam the opportunity to endlessly bash the industry he has struggled within for his entire career. Some of it is clever. He delights in lampooning the obsequious sycophants, producers, and financiers (his favorite target), who circle a film production like vultures. Gilliam stages the chaos of a film shoot as only he can. But because he’s so close to the material, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is without a doubt Gilliam’s angriest movie. That dissipates a lot of its charm; any sense of whimsy he creates is suffocated by the venom.
Not that Gilliam doesn’t have cause to be pissed off. His movie also suffers from the very financial realities he so viciously attacks. Toby is clearly a surrogate for Gilliam, who has been making movies for 40 years. After only a decade in the industry, though, Toby is as beaten down as Gilliam seems to be. Toby’s youth was probably a reality of getting the movie made. Adam Driver, who is 35, plays Toby, and Driver’s rising star status in Hollywood – he plays the villain Kylo Ren in the newest cycle of money-machine Star Wars films – helped secure financing for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.
Driver is miscast because of his age. The character of Toby would have had much more resonance if he had been an old man at the end of his wits and creativity. The movie is centered on Toby’s perspective, but instead of making him the Don Quixote-like character, he becomes the literal Sancho Panza. When he flees from his commercial shoot, Toby finds the man he cast in the Quixote role for his student film, a Spanish shoemaker named Javier. In the ten years after that film’s production, Javier has become convinced he really is Don Quixote. When the two men reconnect, Javier mistakes Toby for his loyal squire.
Jonathan Pryce brings the mentally unbalanced Javier to life. Pryce – who played the fidgety, hilarious Sam Lowry in Gilliam’s masterpiece, Brazil – is wonderful. His expressive face shines through the huge prosthetic nose he wears for the role. His Javier/Quixote is a rascal; his delusions make him all the more endearing.
The duo of Pryce as confused knight-errant and Driver as his unwilling squire never quite gels. The movie focuses on Toby, but it only really comes alive when Javier/Quixote is on the screen, which is unfortunately sporadic.
In between their moments of bickering, we get flashbacks of Toby making his student-film opus. He leads a local bartender’s daughter astray with the promise of Hollywood fame. The movie goes out of its way to make the point that making movies can ruin people’s lives. There are also fantasy sequences where Toby inexplicably does seem to travel back in time. The film’s final act includes an outlandish Russian villain. He’s a businessman with whom Toby’s producers are desperate to close a lucrative deal.
It all feels incoherent and cobbled together. You can tell Gilliam has a lot to say, but after nearly three decades of development hell – script rewrites, aborted productions, actor recasting – the message got muddled along the way.
Terry Gilliam is a dreamer. He’s at his best when his movies feel like he’s showing you his dreams. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote feels more like he’s describing a dream he had. That’s never as effective because there’s always something lost in the translation.
Why it got 2.5 stars:
- All of Terry Gilliam’s films are messy (that’s what makes them work), but The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is just a mess. It never forms a coherent whole the way most of his other movies do.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- There’s a funny meta moment where two characters are speaking to each other in Spanish, and one suddenly brushes the subtitles off the screen as he says, “We don’t need these.” They then begin speaking English. I chuckled, but the self-awareness of a movie like Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story works much better and is more sustained than it is here.
- While it’s nowhere near as egregious or awful as in The Brothers Grimm, the CGI work here is not great. For my money, I’d much rather Gilliam only work in practical effects. Who else will sign my petition?
- I’m going to make (what I think is) a controversial statement. I am… not convinced of Adam Driver’s talent. He just hasn’t wowed me in anything I’ve seen him in yet. Anyone care to convince me otherwise?
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
Looks like The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is being treated like a rented mule by whoever the American distributor is (I could never quite figure that out). That’s a sad pattern in Gilliam’s career. Initially, it was released as a one night event through Fathom Entertainment. I was able to find it a few weeks later: one showing at 10:30 p.m. I wasn’t a fan of the movie, but Gilliam deserves better than this. It breaks my heart that he constantly has to struggle to get his movies seen. Despite the zero marketing and late show time, the crowd actually wasn’t too bad at my screening. There were a few dozen of us. That was more than I was expecting, for sure.