Terry Gilliam’s long-gestating project The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is already better known for its complex production history than for the film itself. Gilliam began working on a version of the project nearly thirty years ago. It has since gone through floods, lightning strikes, cast and crew departures, script rewrites, lack of funding, a documentary about its failure, the deaths of two main actors, more rewrites, and at least two lawsuits that threatened to stop both its premiere at Cannes and its eventual release. Yet, somehow, despite all the efforts and so very many years after the project began, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote has finally come to the screen and the world has not actually ended. Yet.
Adam Driver is Toby, a director attempting to make an ad featuring Don Quixote, beset not by Gilliam-esque disasters per se, but by his own unwillingness to make his advertisement to anyone’s liking. Toby is a self-proclaimed genius surrounded by sycophants, domineering producers, and femme fatales, including Olga Kurylenko in one of her most thankless roles. Feeling that his work is uninspired, Toby picks up a bootleg copy of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote from a wandering gypsy. The film is in fact his own student work, shot in Spain on a shoestring budget with non-actors from a nearby village where he’s now filming. Toby sets off to find the original location and discovers that the world he filmed has changed: the fifteen-year-old star Angelica (Joana Ribeiro) has grown up and run away to become an actress, the original Sancho Panza is dead, the village’s inhabitants, including Angelica’s father, Raul (Hovik Keuchkerian), all hate Toby for bringing his film to their village. Javier (Jonathan Pryce), a cobbler Toby enlisted to play Don Quixote, now believes that he is Don Quixote and that Toby is Sancho Panza. Circumstances fling Toby and Javier together and they travel across the Spanish countryside as servant and master in search of Angelica, now the mistress of a Russian vodka baron. As they travel, Toby begins to dream scenes from Don Quixote (both his own and Cervantes’s), blurring the line between what’s real, what isn’t, and what’s just cinema.
The intermingling of film narrative, dream narrative, and the real world is a longtime concern of Gilliam’s and is here given a new layer with the relationship between Gilliam’s attempts to make his own film and the problems that Toby faces. This is, after all, a film called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote about a director trying to make an ad about Don Quixote, previously having directed a film called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, who meets a man he asked to play Don Quixote, who, in turn, believes he is Don Quixote. Layered beneath this is the fact that Cervantes’s novel concerns an elderly man deluded into believing he’s a knight-errant named Don Quixote. These complications of delusion, imagination, and meta-narrational references make the early part of the film fascinating in itself and set up a co-mingling of concerns and archetypes that the viewer hopes will be dealt with as the narrative proceeds.
Then, abruptly, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote abandons many of its most intriguing conceits. By the time Toby and Javier set off on their quest, the narrative gives way to what is, unhappily, a failed effort to even make a coherent film. The layers of character slip rapidly into one dimension the longer the story goes on, and Gilliam never digs deep into the issues of post-modern narrative structure that has so beautifully informed some of his earlier films. Quixote’s brilliance and pathos is in seeing giants where there are only windmills, yet Gilliam, who has traded in this kind of imaginative liminal space for years, treats all the flights of fancy as though they’re afterthoughts. Toby’s making of his ad, his memories of his past film, the film that he inhabits (there’s a single throwaway interaction that comments on the presence of subtitles and to which Gilliam doesn’t return), and the story that Javier begins to convince Toby is real, all build upon each other and then fall over, like an elderly knight pitching off his horse. It is as if Gilliam began with strong ideas without quite knowing what to do with them, and has instead chosen to defiantly, even bitterly, make a movie, any movie, just to prove he could finally do it.
Adam Driver anchors the film and does a good job with his part, as far as it goes, and Pryce does the same with Javier/Quixote. But neither are asked to do much, especially once they come together as a team, and at times the dialogue ceases to be courtly and becomes merely stilted. The women are likewise good in their respective roles, but they come off as interchangeable and one note, the objects of a man’s quest. This element of sexism could be a commentary on the nature of quest narratives and the requirements of chivalry, but the film ultimately does nothing with it. Rather, it becomes merely antiquated notions of women as objects, treating them as things rather than people. The reliance on tropes of violence against women leave a bad taste, as though Gilliam couldn’t be bothered with conceiving of a quest narrative in which women weren’t beaten and humiliated. Most troubling is Quixote’s low-key misogyny, its reliance on the suffering of its female characters for narrative advancement, and the unsubtle hatred it has for at least one of those characters.
It seems unfair to fault a film that is undoubtedly ambitious and that tries to say something about the nature of narrative. But it remains an incomplete, unrealized work, still more interesting in the fact that it managed to get made at all than in the actual end product. Gilliam has always been an ambitious filmmaker and often that ambition has served him well, even in those films that don’t quite work. Much of Quixote is reminiscent of The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, an equally problematic but more successful rendering of the same themes.
For such a long-term passion project, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote probably has more resting on its emaciated shoulders now than if Gilliam managed to complete it all those years ago. Much like its main character, it has taken on legendary status; unlike him, it fails to live up to its legend. And in that, it’s almost fitting that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a strange, meandering film, unable to find focus or cohesion, and with an undercurrent of bitterness. There’s nothing wrong with tilting at windmills, but even Quixote himself knew when to stop.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is in limited release on April 19.
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