The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
Thirty years in the making, Terry Gilliam's madcap epic finally makes its way to cinemas — and it's a loony ride.
April 11, 2019
Has there ever been a filmmaker more suited to a story than Terry Gilliam and Don Quixote? In trying to get his adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes' 16th-century novel off the ground for three decades, the Monty Python alum shares many a trait with the literary hero — they're both dreamers driven to persevere, and to see the world as they choose, regardless of the factors stacked against them. Given that Gilliam's The Man Who Killed Don Quixote has been in and out of production since 1989, the odds were rarely in the film's favour. Given that he turned a past failed shoot into making-of documentary Lost in La Mancha, it seemed like this movie would never come to fruition. But Gilliam kept toiling as funding came and went, and cast members too. Everyone from Johnny Depp, Ewan McGregor and Jack O'Connell to Jean Rochefort, Robert Duvall, Michael Palin and John Hurt have been attached to the project at various points.
Starring Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote now definitely exists, as if Gilliam willed it into being with the sheer force of his undying dedication. If you still feel like you need to see the film with your own two eyes to believe that it has finally been unleashed onto the world, that's perfectly understandable. Awaiting in this comic adventure is an obvious passion project — the clear product of a single-minded talent with a specific vision, boundless enthusiasm and the willingness to devote a big chunk of his life to a particular cause. It's also gleefully anarchic, a missive on both making and being transformed by movies, and a romantic ode to the unflinching combination of fantasy and fortitude.
A straightforward version of the tale, this isn't. Instead, Gilliam steeps his filmmaker protagonist, Toby Grisoni (Driver), in several layers of Don Quixote connections. (If you're wondering how much humour the writer-director brings to the movie, he co-wrote the screenplay with his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas scribe Tony Grisoni, who, yes, has an immensely similar name to The Man Who Killed Don Quixote's main character.) In Spain shooting a Quixote-themed commercial and sleeping with his boss' (Stellan Skarsgård) wife (Olga Kurylenko), Toby is reminded of his last visit to La Mancha, when he made a black-and-white version of the classic story for his student film. Alas, journeying down memory lane, and reuniting with shoemaker-turned-leading man Javier (Pryce), has repercussions. As Toby discovers, Javier has spent the past decade or so thinking that he really is the chivalrous knight. Spying the director's familiar face doesn't snap him out of it; rather, he believes that Toby is his squire and sidekick Sancho Panza.
When Pryce's Javier bellows "you think you can hide from me?" while immersing Toby in his fanciful quest, it doubles as The Man Who Killed Don Quixote's statement of intent. This flick spent so many years eluding audiences, and now it's determined not only to exist, but to go forth and prosper on its own terms. Go forth, Gilliam does — with the feverish inventiveness that made his early greats such as Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen such delights, and with a sense of spectacle and occasion to go with it. But there's no mistaking that the filmmaker has much in common with the movie's cynical on-screen filmmaker, too. He knows the reality of his chosen business, and how difficult and convoluted it can be. He also knows what's at stake when you don't follow your dreams.
Perhaps that's why The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is so joyous, even when it's ambling about and feeling more than a little shambolic in sections. The film is the product of a guiding hand who's pursuing his passion, is aware of the costs and challenges, and knows that anything worth having is worth working and fighting for. More than that, he's decided that the fruits of his sacrifice and labour are worth sharing as well. As a result, every frame, whether rollicking across dusty plains or literally tilting at windmills, is infused with a can-do, must-do, never-say-die attitude. And while they mightn't have been the director's original choices, Driver and Pryce's intensely committed performances possess the same spirit. After spending so long lost in La Mancha, Gilliam has found his way out, and he's in great company. The twist: even when this loony labour of love proves unsurprisingly indulgent, audiences will still want to get lost in the madcap epic along with him.