Review: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

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PLOT: A successful but vacuous commercial director who once helmed an inspired version of Don Quixote finds himself playing Sancho Panza to a mad shoemaker’s Quixote in Spain.

REVIEW: 30 years is a long time to build up anticipation for a movie, especially one so notorious as Terry Gilliam‘s adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, which has to be considered one of the unluckiest projects in cinema history. After surviving one failed attempt after another, Gilliam – and the rest of us – will finally get to see his vision for the famed Spanish novel on the big screen. (One of his visions, anyway, as the film has taken various shapes and forms over the decades.) And despite having some hope that the film would be as triumph, the ultimate creative culmination of Gilliam’s many years of hard work, it doesn’t necessarily come as much of a shock to find that THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE is a mess; sometimes impressive and filled with Gilliam’s signature surreality, but altogether quite imperfect. The victory is in the fact it got made at all, I suppose, and unfortunately that’ll have to do.

The film stars a rather manic Adam Driver as Toby, a sell-out director of glossy commercials who returns to the town where he once made his passion project, a student film rendition of DON QUIXOTE. His ambitions have changed considerably in ten years, but returning to the place of his idealistic roots will, he hopes, spark something within him. Like him, the village is different, and two key people from his movie in particular have been altered by the experience. Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), the waitress Toby utilized as an actress and gave unrealistic dreams of stardom to, and Javier (Jonathan Pryce), who was a shoemaker when Toby cast him in the titular role but has over the years gone mad, thinking himself to actually be Don Quixote. A series of mishaps and hectic scrambles later, Toby and “Don Quixote” are off, traveling the countryside in pursuit of redemption and a kidnapped Angelica.

Trust me, that’s the short version of the plot. In fact, it’s hard to really describe the bulk of Gilliam’s narrative, which wanders here and there, from one absurdity to the next. DON QUIXOTE begins to feel like an aimless thesis film in its own right, as if Gilliam and company were figuring out what to shoot the day-of, everyone improvising their lines and plot strands being picked up and dropped with little regard. At 132 minutes, the film is undisciplined and rambling, and though Gilliam stages a few sequences that are pure Gilliam, they are few and far between, with more time devoted to random brawls, confusing visions and perplexing conversations that are supposed to have substance.

If Gilliam’s overall vision is muddled, it’s his depiction of Toby that proves to be the film’s most glaring weakness. Driver’s character is, frankly, thoroughly irritating, and the talented actor thrusts himself in Toby’s shrillness wholeheartedly. One can’t fault Driver, he’s doing what he’s been asked and doing it well, but spending over two hours with this obnoxious, condescending anti-hero is a feat even Don Quixote himself would have trouble with. Speaking of, Pryce is remarkably entertaining as the delusional adventurer, one of the film’s bright spots. Alternating between noble and pathetic, bawdy and virtuous, Pryce’s Quixote dominates every scene he’s in, and provides – in stark contrast to Driver’s Toby – a look at what a top-notch telling of the Don Quixote tale could be.

I give points to Gilliam for his ambition, and for the handful of times the movie made me sit up straight and gaze at the lush imagination on display (the third act comes alive, at least visually, when Javier and Toby find themselves inside the surreal castle of a sneering Russian oligarch). I don’t doubt that Gilliam’s considerable fanbase will be more forgiving toward the film than I. For me, THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE is too much of a chaotic, noisy farrago to find much pleasure in.