The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
2018, NR, 132 min. Directed by Terry Gilliam. Starring Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce, Stellan Skarsgård, Olga Kurylenko, Joana Ribeiro, Óscar Jaenada.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., May 10, 2019
Obsession is a bizarre trait. Without it, no filmmaker would get anything done. But with it, they can end up down peculiar and costly rabbit holes. Few such quests have been more intriguing than Terry Gilliam's quest to make his meta-commentary on El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha, aka Don Quixote. His quasi-adaptation/meta-commentary, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, has been an on-and-off endeavor since 1989, and even merited its own (un)making-of documentary, Lost in La Mancha. That version – which starred a pre-scandal Johnny Depp and almost killed his Don Quixote, Jean Rochefort – is dead. So now, finally, Gilliam has completed his quest.
Or rather, continued the latest stage of it. Gilliam has spent decades circling the theme of fantasy and filmmaking, from the cops raiding the set of Monty Python and the Holy Grail onward. His Don Quixote loops back to concepts that he crystallized in The Fisher King, of how illusion melds into delusion, of how damaging and comforting living in a dream can be. On one side is Toby (Driver), a former cinematic enfant terrible reduced to making expensive commercials; on the other, an old shoemaker (Pryce) who he cast as Don Quixote in a student film. Their paths cross again when Toby is back in Spain on a film shoot, and finds that the old man firmly believes his is the knight errant. More than that, the whole world is enabling his fantasy, to the point where it is more real than Toby's fictions.
Both Toby – who falls into the Sancho Panza role – and Don Quixote are, at some level, clear proxies for Gilliam. They are the toxic influence of cinema and its victim, the cynic and the dreamer, and the melding of the two is caught with a gorgeous, frenetic energy. There's no doubt that Gilliam is a master filmmaker. Every frame and moment is packed with details to the point of distraction, every choice seems deliberate but many seem baffling, like Driver's decision to occasionally adopt Neil Gaiman's recent transatlantic pronunciation, go nowhere and add up to little. On the positive side, at least this time he's abandoned his irksome sound editing obsession with having the cast talk over each other (a quirk he developed with Monty Python's Flying Circus, and one that has only got worse over time). But the audio clarity doesn't really help the narrative or thematic flow, as Toby becomes an arch Greek chorus to the increasingly garbled and deliberately nonsensical events. Gilliam may have evolved as a director since 1977's Jabberwocky, but he's kept the same spirit of wild imagination (and also, unfortunately, his tendencies toward broad stereotyping and blond damsels in distress).
So what, ultimately, is The Man Who Killed Don Quixote? It may be an end cap to a career, or the culmination of decades of effort. Yet it seems most suitable that this came out so soon after the release of Orson Welles' The Other Side of the Wind – or rather, producer Frank Marshall's construct from Welles' footage, since the director himself never got to finish the film. Or as implied in They'll Love Me When I'm Dead, Morgan Neville's documentary about Welles' posthumous swan song, it was more a process than a project. There's a similar sensation when watching The Man Who Killed Don Quixote – that Gilliam has been making it for so long that he doesn't know how not to make it. Yet the whole point of The Other Side of the Wind was that it was Welles throwing out his old rulebook and reinventing himself for a new era. This is Gilliam at his most Gilliam, and that's fine, but there's nothing left to say. It's a stark contrast to a pair of his peers: With Dog Eat Dog and First Reformed, Paul Schrader has reinvented himself. Gilliam instead is more like Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose later works (The Dance of Reality and Endless Poetry) are missives to the faithful. Maybe it's time Gilliam find new windmills at which to tilt.