We’ve all experienced that sensation of something sounding or looking good in our heads — a note we wanted to write to someone, a story we wanted to pen, perhaps even a film we wanted to make — and then the disappointment of it actually coming to existence on the page or screen and the thing not being exactly how we envisioned it in the seclusion of our minds.
In a strange way, Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote — a film that the maverick director of Brazil and 12 Monkeys has been attempting to make for three decades — engenders the same sensation in the viewer. After all these years, and with the movie’s almost legendary status as the one that kept getting away, one can’t help but wonder if all the time, energy and emotion that Gilliam apparently poured into finally getting this story onscreen was worth it.
The film was initially conceived as a more or less straight adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ classic early 17th century novel Don Quixote, in which an aging nobleman and his squire, a peasant named Sancho Panza, embark on a quest to restore chivalry to the land while engaging in adventures that may all be in the nobleman’s addled imagination. Gilliam started work on the film in 1989 and got one version of it, with Johnny Depp and Jean Rochefort, in front of cameras for five days in 2000, only to watch helplessly as a string of catastrophes shut the production down (much of this is chronicled in the excellent documentary Lost in La Mancha).
Over the years, the director struggled to get new funding for the film, with various actors coming and going in the lead roles, as he and co-writer Tony Grisoni continued to revise the script and replace the period setting with a more modern scenario. The film eventually went into production again in 2017, starring Adam Driver as Toby Grisoni, a once promising filmmaker who has abandoned his dreams and settled cynically into a more lucrative but empty career as a director of commercials.
Shooting a new ad in Spain for his powerful but vaguely threatening boss (Stellan Skarsgard) while fielding advances from the boss’s hot-to-trot wife (Olga Kurylenko), Toby realizes that the location of the shoot is not far from the small village where he shot the student film that launched his career 10 years earlier, an adaptation of Don Quixote starring an elderly village local named Javier (Jonathan Pryce) in the title role and a beautiful teenager named Angelica (Joana Ribeiro) in a small role.
Journeying to the village, Toby is dismayed to find that Angelica went to the big city to pursue her dream of acting (egged on by her director) but landed instead in an escort service. Meanwhile, Javier now believes he is actually Don Quixote and insists that Toby is his Sancho Panza. A series of mishaps, misadventures and semi-comic confrontations ensue as time and reality bend for the increasingly confused Toby and his quest with Javier leads to a decadent palace where all the players converge.
Longtime Gilliam fans will find a lot of the director’s trademark concerns and themes restated in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote: ruminations on the line between fantasy and reality, the pull between sanity and lunacy and the tension between staying true to oneself and becoming a cog in a vast machine are all present and accounted for. But this time out it seems as if he has nothing new to say about any of those often-explored ideas, and is content to merely replay them through his usual filter of broad performances and whimsical or arresting visuals.
And make no mistake: Gilliam has not lost his touch in the latter department. Working with cinematographer Nicola Pecorini, he makes the most out of locations in Spain and Portugal while deploying the kind of in-camera visual effects that have always set apart his movies. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is certainly compelling to look at.
But there is a sense that the story is the same-old, same-old that the filmmaker has thoroughly examined before, and the convoluted, haphazard way in which it is told doesn’t help matters. Neither does the fact that Driver and Pryce, both excellent actors, seem to be working in two different movies: Pryce brings a certain poignancy — at least for a while — to his aging Javier, who is utterly lost in his fantasy, while Driver brings a manic, over-the-top energy to Toby that becomes grating even for this eminently watchable actor. He’s still good, but this won’t make the top of his highlight reel.
In the end, Gilliam seems to suggest that letting oneself slip away into the world of one’s own imagination is a much better alternative to the cold, callous, greed-driven reality we have to endure on a daily basis. It’s as much a metaphor for the filmmaking process as anything else, which is why it’s odd that the movie feels so personal and yet so removed at the same time. Perhaps it’s for the best that Gilliam has at last gotten this project out of his system and can move past it, but it’s ironic that the final result is so flawed. In the end, the man who killed this Don Quixote was Terry Gilliam himself.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is playing tonight (Apr. 10) in a one-time theatrical showing through Fathom Events. Future distribution has yet to be announced.
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye