It’s hardly shocking that Terry Gilliam might see a bit of himself in Don Quixote. The director and Monty Python member has made a career of tilting at windmills, mounting ambitious film projects, such as Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, that are often plagued by studio meddling and budget overruns and end up feeling like implausible gambits. But for three decades, the giant that Gilliam could not slay was The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a fourth-wall-breaking, loopily postmodern adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’s masterpiece. That the film exists, and is coming to limited theaters this weekend, feels like an achievement all on its own.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the story behind The Man Who Killed Don Quixote has come to dominate the narrative of the final project. Gilliam’s film is a deliberately shaggy, recursive story about the all-consuming nature of filmmaking: A director (played by Adam Driver) finds that his long-ago efforts to make a Don Quixote movie as a student have left behind destruction and madness in the town where he worked. To anyone who has followed the parabolic arcs of Gilliam’s career, it’s a fascinating text; to the more casual viewer, it might come off only as a meandering mess.
In The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, Toby Grisoni (Driver) begins as a put-upon, soulless big shot, directing a fancy commercial in the Spanish countryside and contending with a grumpy financier known simply as “The Boss” (Stellan Skarsgård). Nostalgic for his old work, Grisoni journeys back to the rural village where he made an amateur black-and-white film version of Don Quixote. There, he finds that the old cobbler (Jonathan Pryce) who worked with him 10 years ago has never let go of the performance: He has become Quixote, the ditzy knight-errant who roams the country on a horse, looking for giants (a.k.a. windmills) to charge at and women to chivalrously rescue. Grisoni is quickly sucked into Quixote’s delusion, and Gilliam begins toying with the line between fiction and reality. He transports the characters into a 17th-century adventure, never quite settling on whether or not it’s all a dream.
Given the movie’s drawn-out production history, the meta-textual angle of Grisoni (jokingly named after Gilliam’s co-screenwriter, Tony Grisoni) trying to reckon with the damaging effects of his filmmaking is an interesting one for Gilliam to take. No doubt The Man Who Killed Don Quixote has wreaked havoc on his own life. To get a sense of just how cursed this film has been over the decades, one can seek out Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe’s Lost in La Mancha, a 2002 documentary about the epic unraveling of an earlier iteration of the project that starred Johnny Depp and Jean Rochefort. Others connected to the Don Quixote role over the years include Sean Connery, Robert Duvall, Michael Palin, and John Hurt, whose death from cancer in 2017 stalled out the most recent failed attempt at filming.
Even after he finished editing the movie, Gilliam was drawn into a legal battle with its former producer, and then had a health scare while preparing to premiere it at Cannes last year. As someone trying to preserve order while accidentally sowing chaos, Quixote is a fitting avatar for the director. But after that terrific premise is established, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote takes an awfully long time to wind to its conclusion, following Quixote and Grisoni through various misadventures that are as confusingly photographed as they are pointless.
Pryce, who collaborated with Gilliam on Brazil and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, is beautifully suited to the role of Quixote. He’s an ornery presence with just the barest twinkle in his eye, who gives the knight’s old-fashioned air of righteousness just the right balance of dignity and ludicrousness. Driver, who becomes Quixote’s much-abused sidekick Sancho Panza, is a source of boundless energy for a movie that feels longer than its 132-minute running time, giving viewers a human figure to identify with lest they drown in Gilliam’s overflowing imagination.
The creative journey, and the magical bond between artist and subject, are what ignite Gilliam’s passion here. Unfortunately, the themes of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote are more compelling than the set pieces themselves. While the film is an undeniable triumph for Gilliam, that’s less because of the work itself and more because of the fact that it was released at all.
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