On one hand, expectations were relatively low for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. It’s actually quite astounding that Terry Gilliam’s infamously troubled production has finally made its way into theaters after decades of colossal setbacks. On the other, however, the director’s cinematic white whale has thirty years worth of mythos to live up to, and there’s a lot riding on the would-be crowning opus that was never meant to exist. At this point, it’s nearly impossible to separate the final product from the years of failures which birthed it. Caught somewhere between the director’s Monty Python roots and his fascination with the films of Fellini, Gilliam’s long awaited dissertation on delusion and the pursuit of art captures both the joy and pain that went into creating it, even if it’s often at the expense of a cohesive flow.
When cynical advertising director Toby Grisoni (Adam Driver) travels to Spain for his latest commercial, he revisits the same rural village where he shot his proudest achievement, a low-budget student film riffing on Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote. There he finds the local shoemaker he hired to play his titular hero (Jonathan Pryce), who has spent the time since shooting believing himself to actually be the famed knight errant. “Don Quixote” mistakes Toby for his trusted squire Sancho Panza, roping him into his delusional quest of nobility as he battles windmills both literal and metaphorical.
As with many of Adam Driver’s performances, it’s difficult to imagine anyone else as the jaded, narcissistic Toby Grisoni. Although such varied personalities as Robin Williams, Johnny Depp, and Ewan McGregor were once attached to the role, Driver’s ace ability to balance broad comedy and genuine unease truly sells Toby’s descent into madness for the fruitless pursuit of legacy. He must lose his mind in order for “Don Quixote” to find his own, subsequently proving that he isn’t the Sancho Panza of his own story. With Toby as our pawn, Gilliam paints a pointed – albeit messy – satire of the filmmaking process, as art imitates life imitating art in this reflection of both Cervantes’s preeminent novel and the film’s murky trip through production hell.
A viewer’s enjoyment of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote may be entirely linked to their feelings towards Gilliam’s previous catalog thus far. No one familiar with his work would ever doubt for a second that this film is his singular brainchild, as all of the director’s recognizable traits come out to play, including a loose, flowing narrative, a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek surrealism, and a confusing plot (that may or may not include time travel). As Gilliam moves outside of a straightforward adaptation of the source material, he is able to tap into the delusions of grandeur necessary for both directorial efforts and knightly quests. Three decades of rewrites have muddied the script’s narrative rhythm somewhat, but it’s clear that the bones of this story have remained constant in his seemingly endless quest for closure.
Even though it will only play in cinemas for a single night, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote feels like a success. It may be rough around the edges and downright inaccessible at times, but it is undoubtedly the culmination of a dream that some higher power never wanted to see the light of day. Fans of Gilliam’s earlier work (The Fisher King, in particular) are sure to walk away satisfied. As for the naysayers? Well, they were never going to climb aboard in the first place. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is more of an adaptation in theme than in plot, but it is a steadfast reminder of what makes its source material so resolutely timeless.