Terry Gilliam had been trying to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, his modern adaptation of Miguel De Cervantes’s Don Quixote, for well over 20 years. The cursed production of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was captured in the 2002 documentary Lost in La Mancha, and in the subsequent years Gilliam came close to getting the film off the ground only for it all to fall apart time and time again. After years of chasing the elusive windmills of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Terry Gilliam proved victorious and was able to finish the film, and even though a legal dispute and an unexpected distributor change put the film in limbo it finally emerges from Gilliam’s brain onto the screen. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was worth the wait as Terry Gilliam has crafted his best film in years, a manic whirlwind of comedy and tragedy that captures the essence of Cervantes’ enduring creation while finding a modern spin that examines the beauty and terror of passion, art, and dreams.
Toby (Adam Driver) is a director working on a commercial in Spain. He’s using Don Quixote as his inspiration but the inspiration is fleeting, and the egotistical filmmaker is uninspired by his own work. A chance encounter with a gypsy selling a bootleg of his student film, the Quixote-inspired The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, gives Toby a strong dose of nostalgia for his breakthrough work. He flees the production and returns to the small village where he filmed the student film only to discover that his work wasn’t fondly remembered by the villagers. One villager, though, is happy to see Toby once again. A shoemaker whom Toby hired to play his Don Quixote (Jonathan Pryce) has become convinced he’s the knight errant and that his former director is his faithful squire Sancho Panza. Toby will be a sidekick on an unusual journey through Spain with detours through Toby’s complicated past as the aged Quixote searches for the lost art of chivalry and his fictitious love Dulcinea.
Terry Gilliam and co-writer Tony Grisoni put the character of Toby through the ringer, taking the character on a journey not just alongside a man deranged enough to think himself Don Quixote but also through his past, the regrets and short-lived moments of warmth. This causes the rather egotistical Toby to take personal stock of his life, especially after reuniting with Angelica (Joana Ribiero), the young woman who starred in his student film whom he was infatuated with during the production. Years later, his promises of superstardom have proven to be false, and Toby carries this guilt about Angelica’s life even if it’s a sentiment that she doesn’t share. Suddenly, there’s a part of Toby that is adopting the manic characteristics of his ragtag companion in seeing a damsel in distress that’s in need of saving even though he’s the only one that believes there is danger.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote flashes between the past and present, dreams and reality. Of course, its structure isn’t the kind of storytelling that’s going to appeal to a wide audience but it’s so necessary to what Gilliam is trying to accomplish with the film. The characters are driven by passion and their dreams, all of which lead to misunderstandings that are comical and delusions that are tragic. With The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Gilliam has crafted a tale about how passion and dreams can push us towards great heights but it’s a thin line between brilliance and insanity, something Gilliam has been exploring throughout his career but seemingly takes on a new profundity in a film that been his passionate dream which has also pushed him towards the brink of madness.
There’s one reason that the ridiculous amount of time it took for Terry Gilliam to make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was a blessing – Adam Driver. He’s such a perfect fit as Toby in the film I shudder thinking of what the film would’ve been with Johnny Depp in the lead. There’s a captivating mix of arrogance and bewilderment in Driver’s performance, and it even comes through in smaller scenes where he’s interacting with his boss (Stellan Skarsgård) and his cheating wife (Olga Kurylenko), nervously and diplomatically telling each what they want to hear in order to save his own skin. Of course, opposite Driver is the great Jonathan Pryce as the demented Don Quixote. In their collaborations over the years, Gilliam has always let Pryce go over the top in his performances, and the veteran actor is just having a blast inflecting a Spanish accent and ranting nonsensically about chivalry.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is worth the wait if you’re a fan of Terry Gilliam’s films and can handle a movie that refuses to hold your hand as it weaves between dreams and reality. Many audiences aren’t going to be able to ride with the film’s intense dream logic, but if you’re on the same wavelength as the film it’s a funny, engrossing, and thought-provoking work of cinema. Maybe the last few efforts from Terry Gilliam were lackluster because his mind was still adrift in this world, dreaming of this passion project that has continually slipped through his fingers. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote has left Gilliam’s mind and found its way onto the screen, and it was worth the wait as Terry Gilliam has made his best movie since Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. This movie put its director through Hell – more than once! – but its existence proves that every once in a while dreams can transcend reality.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote took decades to make but it was worth the wait as co-writer-director Terry Gilliam has made one of his best films in years with a unique blend of comedy and tragedy amidst the thin line between dreams and delusions.