In the year that saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, the U.S. invasion of Panama, and Rick Moranis making a case for himself as worst parent ever, Monty Python ringleader Terry Gilliam had a dream — a dream of a delusional man of La Mancha and the Kafka-esque escapades that plagued his “squire." In the three decades that followed, he saw his dream emerge, fall, and finally graduate to reality. What was once the failed mutterings of a renegade artist now materializes in U.S. cinemas, thus proving that, with enough faith and determination in your craft, your dream will never die.
A film 30 years in the making, Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote stars Adam Driver as Toby, an advertisement director struggling to finish work on a promotional project based around Cervantes's Don Quixote. One night, Toby rediscovers a “passion project” — or “student film” — he completed a decade ago in which he adapted the Spanish novel. This rediscovery leads him to reunite with the shoemaker (Jonathan Pryce) he picked to play the famed Man of La Mancha. Trouble is, this shoemaker has since come to believe he really is Don Quixote.
Although he stands out for his entertaining tirades against other characters, Driver fails to shine as Toby, who seems to only exist as foil to the lackadaisical lunacy of Pryce’s suited-up shoemaker. There is a glimpse of hope for Toby as a character, but it's not until much later in the film, when he succumbs to the delusions that presumably plague his star attraction. His repeated flinging of expletives becomes a defining character feature, which, in this case, is not a good thing.
As the film progresses, it’s easy to pick up on the similarities between Gilliam’s newest work and his previous ones. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote's bewildering cinematography and over-reliance on Dutch-angle shots resembles the chaotic camera techniques used in Twelve Monkeys. And Gilliam’s use of CGI doesn’t seem to have improved much since his dependency on it in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Certain animated sequences near The Man's conclusion come off as rushed and unpolished.
But most glaring of all is the possibility that Gilliam already made this movie before: with 1991’s The Fisher King. Both of these films follow a socially despondent media official, who finds both redemption and purpose through a social outcast. The metaphorical/literal crusade, though laughable upon first glance, is what leads the main character to not only find purpose in his own life but regain control in it.
A terrific climax cements The Man Who Killed Don Quixote's impact, but it's an exhausting journey to get there. We watch our protagonists perform impromptu jousts; we watch fantasy sequences where Toby believes he and “Don” are to be executed by terrorists. These character interactions become as irritating as those seen in Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, where a man struggles to survive a night in a New York neighborhood while the chaos around him threatens to swallow him whole. This could very well be a personal reaction to various Kafka-esque narratives, but Kafka was not a writer one merely reads for pleasure.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote's production history is just as rich and complex as the narrative itself. Beginning in 1989, funding and casting for the film were not completed until seven years later. Over the course of four years, Gilliam would go over budget on numerous occasions. Actors such as Jean Rochefort (whom the completed film is dedicated to) and Johnny Depp would either face injury or fail to show up for filming. Most damaging of all was the destruction of most of the film equipment due to flooding. After two months of initial filming, the project was cancelled in November 2000.
Although originally completed in 2017, distribution issues and a lawsuit from a former producer of the project prevented the film’s initial stateside release after its premiere at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. But the project refused to die.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is worth seeing, if only to experience what 30 years of determination does to an artist. Although its similarities with previous Gilliam projects seem to stifle its status as magnum opus, The Man's concluding message — on the relationship of creator and creation — seals the deal: “Don Quixote de la Mancha will never die.”