It exists. I’ve seen it. And while I cannot guarantee that every member of the audience at the first press screening of “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” is not going to die mysteriously in the next fortnight, like we’ve desecrated Tutankhamun’s tomb, for the time being, I can assure you that there is a movie — at 2 hours 12 minutes of Gilliam maximalism, quite a lot of a movie, in fact — and it is about Don Quixote, and the man who killed Don Quixote, and the Don Quixote Inside All Of Us. Terry Gilliam‘s famously cursed project bears many visible scars from its tortured 25-year-plus gestation and an open wound in the shape of a disclaimer title card referring to its ongoing legal proceedings. But it is otherwise definitely, positively a film, ready to be unleashed on the world in a flurry of windmills and whimsy. Of course, I might be lying. There’s really no way for you to know.
This is, without doubt, the most difficult film to divorce from the context of its production that we are likely to see for a very long time. But in amongst the discussion of all those shutdowns and setbacks and illnesses and demises, its status as Gilliam’s ever-more-impossible dream took on such mythic resonance that of all the potential outcomes, the least likely was that it would be any good. Gilliam’s bete noir and Gilliam’s white whale was almost sure to turn out to be Gilliam’s white elephant, right? And it is certainly too long and too messy, too indulgent in some parts and too starved in others to be an unqualified success. But the surprise of it is that there are times, like the inspired first act, when it really does work, when it seems to have a kind of manic energy, a sheer joy at existing, which certainly makes it a far more engaging picture than Gilliam’s last, the garish “The Zero Theorem.” Perhaps Gilliam himself might dig the fact that the best critique of “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” is a line from a nursery rhyme: when it’s good, it’s very, very good, and when it’s bad, it’s horrid.
At the very least the film is a testament to the preternatural watchability of Adam Driver. Playing Toby, a hotshot commercials director returning the Spanish countryside where he shot a student film ten years prior, Driver is outstandingly good at negotiating the script’s ping-ponging tone and its sudden shifts between fantasy and reality. He is, by far, the most modern and grounding element in a film that, despite some awkwardly shoehorned-in references to Islamic extremism panic, and a vaguely spunky female lead in Joana Ribeiro‘s Angelica, feels like it has the early ’90s coded into its DNA.
As a result, the early scenes, with Toby striding around set and issuing acerbic put-downs to the crew, financiers (a trio of suited Asian men), his manager (Jason Watkins), and his boss (an oleaginous Stellan Skarsgård, feeling oddly at sea here), are great fun. For those of us whose favor the Gilliam of “The Fisher King,” in which the grotesquery and garishness of the fantasy elements are embellishments to a story set mostly in the real world, this opening has some enjoyable satirical heft, as well as some inside-baseball, behind-the-scenes comedy, which is always good value.
Toby is having an empty-headed affair with his boss’s wife, played by Olga Kurylenko, who is given almost nothing to do except be rapaciously sexual. But when a mysterious gypsy (Óscar Jaenada) sells him a bootleg DVD of the student film that he’d all but forgotten making (titled, inevitably “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”), Toby decides to revisit the village where he found his stars. Local shoemaker Javier Sanchez (Jonathan Pryce) played his Quixote, while The Girl (he admits shamefacedly that he never gave her a name, which seems to be Gilliam lightly acknowledging the passive sexism from which this film is also not immune) was played by Angelica, the comely daughter of the local barkeeper. It is a surprisingly touching revelation (and a swipe at the parasitical nature of young, hip filmmakers searching for “authenticity” before moving on to the next gig) that Toby’s film ruined both Javier’s and Angelica’s lives. The young woman went to Madrid to pursue dreams of stardom that quickly soured into life as an escort. Javier, meanwhile, has essentially gone mad, laboring under the delusion that he actually is Don Quixote, and insistent that Toby is, in fact, his Sancho Panza.
A series of capers conspire to make it necessary for Toby to play along with that delusion, until, as though the sheer force of Javier’s conviction is infectious, he starts to believe the fantasy too, filling his pockets with gold coins and evading pursuers dressed in black robes who canter into town like the Spanish Inquisition.
But as the real world recedes, the film gets more uneven and slips more frequently into the ornate, baroque recesses of Gilliam’s imagination, which are as often tiresome as they are magical. By the time the final act rolls around, which requires the tortuous contrivance of a costume party given by an evil vodka magnate in a local medieval castle to work itself out, a lot of the film’s heart has been lost to intricate production design and cartoonish character motivations.
It’s said that every film is a documentary of its own making, which would make “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” actually the third such (alongside “Lost in La Mancha” and the upcoming “Found in La Mancha“). And it can become headachey and shrill, this metatextual labyrinth, almost too densely layered with real-world resonance for comfort. “There are no birds in last autumn’s nests,” says one character, reciting words that, ironically, were presumably first written three decades ago. And Javier/Quixote’s delusional hubris is gradually revealed to be very similar to that of an ageing artist, fearing the onset of irrelevance, and terrified that posterity will forget him, or find him ridiculous: it is impossible not to relate this to Gilliam himself, and to wonder how much of that pathos would have come through had he conquered this particular windmill back when he first tilted at it.
This is a film in which almost the last lines are “Don Quixote will never die!” that is dedicated to Jean Rochefort and John Hurt, two of its prior Don Quixotes who did. It’s hard to tell if the fact that it exists is happy ending enough, or if the compromises of its existence mean it ought to have stayed forever in the ether, like Jodorowsky‘s “Dune.” Neither as bad as you fear nor as good as it deserves to be given the sheer effort of will that went into getting it made, until the next chapter unfolds in a saga we can’t quite believe is over yet, it is enough that “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” lives. [B-]