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The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
First run Screening room

Former animator and Monty Python troop member turned maverick, visionary, pain-in-the-ass filmmaker Terry Gilliam (Time Bandits, Brazil, The Fisher King, and a whole lot of sub-par dreck) has been trying to make a film about Miguel de Cervantes’s seminal seventeenth-century novel Don Quixote since he first read it back in 1989. The book's central conceit of a mad but uniquely perceptive lone individual taking on a society that has passed him by mirrors Gilliam own life, it's not a surprise this director would be determined to make some kind of film adaptation of the story despite the many human and natural forces that tried to thwart him at every turn. For almost thirty years he has been trying to get the movie made with various stars formally and rumoured to be attached: Sean Connery, Nigel Hawthorne, Danny DeVito, John Cleese, Robin Williams, Gérard Depardieu, Robert Duvall, Ewan McGregor, John Hurt, and Michael Palin. In 2000, cameras rolled on the production with Jean Rochefort and Johnny Depp in the leading roles. But the ageing Rochefort, who was suffering from prostate issues, that were all too obvious in any shot with him riding a horse, and several other major production problems caused the film to shut down. The entertaining documentary Lost in La Mancha (2002) by Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe captures in detail this aborted attempt to make the movie. In 2018, Gilliam finally got to make his white whale of a feature starring his frequent collaborator Jonathan Price and the former edgy It-boy up-and-comer turned bonafide movie star Adam Driver. But this a project probably should have been left to die after its many stillbirths. 

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote centers on a young American hack director of big-budget commercials (Driver) who returns to Spain where ten years prior he’d made his calling card student film based on Cervantes’s Don Quixote. He cast an old shoemaker (Price) from a small village in the title role, and he flirted with the angelic young daughter (Joana Ribeiro) of a gruff innkeeper, encouraging her to pursue acting. Now he discovers the results of what he unwittingly set into motion ten years ago. It’s a wonderful premise, sparked in some ways, I’m sure, from Gilliam’s observations about how the Monty Python cast and crew affected the long-term lives of the Scottish villagers who appeared in and worked on his first feature Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). I can’t think of any movie before that explores the aftermath and other direct effects of what happens when a film company descends into a small town, spends many intense, intimate weeks or months with the locals, and then pulls up stakes and disappears. But that is not what this film is about.

The version of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote we finally got is yet another tedious, over-art-directed, underwritten slog from a director whose signature style got harder and harder to tolerate as his scripts grew less and less cohesive. Clocking in at 132 min and edited so rapidly that everything feels like a climax, the movie pummels you with its elaborate set-pieces and cynical commentary. Driver is at sea playing an asshole you don’t want to spend time with, don’t want to hear him mutter cutting, obnoxious remarks under his breath, and don’t care if he makes amends for his past, or finds forgiveness, or goes mad, or whatever's happening to him in this film (it seems to be different things at different times). Price comes off better—he looks perfect in the role, and it would be great to see this actor actually play Don Quixote—but most of what he does in this picture amounts to little more than delusional yelling and falling off his horse. This is the only movie for which I’ve ever wanted to see less Jonathan Price.

Despite the modern-day setting and jaundice commentary on the film industry, the story is meant to harken back to grander times. But Gilliam’s ideas about old-fashioned romance, justice, and artistic temperament come off as belligerent and offensive. This director makes timeless universal themes play like the obsessions of an out-of-touch narcissistic old man. 

As with many Gilliam efforts, the film’s US release was held up due to legal complications and a fight between him and the producer of one of the aborted attempts to make the picture, who claimed he still owned all the rights to the project. Thus, despite closing out the Cannes Film Fest to a standing ovation, the movie received only a one-day independent release in US theaters. Gilliam has railed against Studio Executives, the Writers Guild of America, independent producers, and nearly all aspects of Hollywood ever since the mishandling of his masterpiece, Brazil, but his arrogant personality and stubborn choices are every bit to blame for the way his career has faltered. His insistence on total artistic freedom is misplaced since he has proven time and time again that he’s never mastered the art of structuring a story, is not a very good director of actors beyond the casting stage, and has contempt for both producers and professional screenwriters (which are, much to this director’s chagrin, essential components of the filmmaking process).

Despite making three of my all-time favorite films (Holy Grail, Time Bandits, and Brazil), which were each tremendous influences on me, I gave up long ago on the idea that Gilliam would ever render another actual work of art again. Still, I wasn’t going to skip the chance of finally seeing how his long-gestating, dream project finally turned out. Now, I wish I had.

When a filmmaker is haughty enough to state at the opening of his movie that it has been over twenty-five year’s in the making, he had better deliver something that actually looks like that much time and care were put into its creation. But the narratively incoherent and thematically confused The Man Who Killed Don Quixote feels slapped together and riddled with humor that hasn’t had any real edge or ability to make sly ironic commentary since the early ‘80s. There’s no sense that this filmmaker has been reflecting on the ideas of his favorite source material for thirty years. It just feels like another movie by a guy desperate to make movies in order to satisfy his desire to see his visions on screen. Those visions use to mean a great deal to me, I can’t see how they can mean much to anyone but Gilliam these days.

Twitter Capsule:
After more than 25 years of work, one might expect a film less belligerently incoherent and slapped together. Gilliam makes timeless universal themes play like the obsessions of an out-of-touch narcissistic old man.

Directed by Terry Gilliam
Produced by Amy Gilliam, Sébastien Delloye, Mariela Besuievsky, Gerardo Herrero, and Grégoire Melin

Written by Terry Gilliam and Tony Grisoni
Based on the novel Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

With: Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce, Stellan Skarsgård, Olga Kurylenko, Joana Ribeiro, Óscar Jaenada, Jason Watkins, and Jordi Mollà

Cinematography: Nicola Pecorini
Editing: Lesley Walker and Teresa Font
Music: Roque Baños

Runtime: 132 min
Release Date: 19 May 2018
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1