You think explaining explains anything?
I’ve just finished watching it and yet I still can’t believe Terry Gilliam actually completed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. If you told me I had dreamt it all I would give pause because it’s been over twenty years in the making and its cursed production schedules have become something I relied upon. First he wanted to do a straight adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes‘ novel only to have it fall through. Then came the flash flood and insurance nightmare documented in Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe‘s Lost in La Mancha (a making of extra turned unmaking documentary) wherein the story shifted so Johnny Depp‘s contemporary executive could time-travel to meet Jean Rochefort and become his Sancho Panza. Next came money woes, legal insanity, and futility.
Those things didn’t end once the final cut was delivered either considering Gilliam lost his distributor (Amazon) and was handed an injunction before its Cannes debut by a former producer declaring the movie was made illegally and without the necessary permission from him. You couldn’t write this stuff, it was so wild. But Gilliam was never going to give in and take the loss after putting so much time, effort, and energy into it—let alone having to watch as two previous Quixotes passed away during the interim (Rochefort and John Hurt). It’s no wonder then that he and cowriter Tony Grisoni would find themselves writing these pitfalls into the story itself. Lead actor Adam Driver called production an exorcism for Gilliam and we can see it on-screen.
Driver plays Toby, a wunderkind director specializing in short form commercials for a demanding, slimy-chic producer (Stellan Skarsgård‘s Boss). He’s talked the investors into flying everyone out to Spain to make this sixty-second bit “authentic” with Quixote and Sancho riding towards windmills the former thinks are giants. The set is brimming with hostility due to multiple languages, declining morale, and a vision gone adrift. Toby seems less burnt out than indifferent, though. He acts like he faces zero consequences and only barely shows an interest in righting the ship when a wave of nostalgia hits in the form of a bootleg DVD of a black and white student film he directed about Cervantes’ ingenious gentleman starring a cobbler he plucked off the streets (Jonathan Pryce‘s Javier).
If he could find this man, maybe inspiration would hit. So he travels to the small village he took over with his American confidence and persuasion ten years previously to find that he left an indelible mark. One actor was dead, another (Joana Ribeiro‘s Angelica) followed his praise to seek stardom only to wind up an escort her father (Hovik Keuchkerian‘s Raul) calls a whore, and Javier now actually thinks he is Don Quixote. Toby had filled these people’s minds with platitudes and attention, propping up dreams that could never be fulfilled. Will these ramifications get him to look inward and see what he’s become in the aftermath too? Not really. Instead they set him on a path to burn his empty, morally bankrupt existence to the ground.
Toby’s stand-in for Gilliam suddenly finds himself the victim of chaos. The Gods line up against him with his Boss’ girlfriend Jacqui (Olga Kurylenko) seducing him before showing genuine fear about the repercussions only to seduce him again like she couldn’t care less; a run-in with the police that leads to a shootout for which he becomes a suspect; and a virtual kidnapping at the hands of Arabs he reflexively declares terrorists the second he realizes their ethnicity (the optics get even worse when one stops praying to implore that we was merely inspecting the rug for defects—how funny). And with them come coincidences like running into Angelica under a waterfall or Jacqui in costume on her way to Boss’ potential client Alexei Miiskin’s (Jordi Mollà) soirée.
Sometimes these things happen to Toby and sometimes to Toby as Sancho because that’s who Javier thinks he is post-reunion. We’re therefore following this director’s pratfalls as the world threatens to consume him and Don Quixote’s adventures through rough terrain and shady characters. There are even a few dreams thrown in that could probably more accurately be labeled hallucinations with hindsight. And if that seems like it would prove pretty confusing, well you’d be correct. Not because you lose track of where you are (the entire film takes place in the present and thus anything that seems out-of-the-ordinary is most likely a fabrication), but because it’s impossible to know what the journey’s purpose is. Besides as a catharsis for Gilliam, I’m not sure there is one.
Toby’s a villain. He’s a hotshot prick in youth and a self-centered prick today. His relationship with Angelica started when she was fifteen and now he arrives out-of-the-blue with empty promises to save her from an abusive life he trivializes the instant she calls him out on his bullshit. And he’s always trying to leave Javier behind—a not so subtle metaphor for always trying to get away from his actions’ responsibility. So I can’t say I ever felt sympathy for Toby since Gilliam never provides him a chance to be redeemed. Not even the climactic scene where remorse and guilt finally arrive does the trick because he’s still motivated by self-interest. He’s a director refusing to give in despite the writing being on the wall (wink, wink).
Javier is a batty old gent. He was weird in flashbacks as a man without a clue before some flimsy sense of honor imbues him with the identity of Don Quixote that he never relinquishes. We can empathize with his plight, but he’s never more than a supporting player to Toby’s story and thus never positioned to earn an emotional connection to us. We pity him because we realize he can serve no purpose anymore except to thaw his old friend “Sancho’s” black soul. Javier is a product of Americans entering a world they believe is beneath them and meddling without understanding the impact or putting themselves on the line to help once what they sought to accomplish is finished. He’s a cypher, a glimpse into the future.
And if Javier is a prop, everyone is a prop. I really hoped this whole endeavor would end with Toby waking up in his director’s chair to discover it was all a dream or have the camera pan to Gilliam himself so everything could be revealed to have been a movie within a movie. That’s how visible the strings are and how wild things get without explanation. Yes we can chalk it all up to hallucinations because they are proven to exist, but removing the line that separates imagination from reality means nothing will ever possess the stakes it needs to matter. Kurylenko’s slapstick comedy simply exists next to Ribeiro’s melodrama and Mollà’s psychopathy because it can. The ending therefore adds more incredulity by proving everything is meaningless.
Perhaps that’s the point. Gilliam put so much of himself into this project that perhaps finishing it and escaping its lure was the goal whether he knew it or not. The film isn’t necessarily bad—it’s just over-stuffed with two-plus decades of rewrites forming a house of cards upon a dense foundation that we can no longer see. There are aspects that reminded me of The Fisher King, but nothing ever reaches that gem’s poignancy because it’s too busy being funny. With a second Arab joke declaring a group of women in fake beards suicide-bombers, however, cringe-worthy is much more apt. It’s a tonal mess with extreme highs and lows ensuring fatigue will set-in during its two-hour runtime. Thankfully it also jolted me awake more often than not.
So I lean on the side of praise … barely. It’s always great seeing what Gilliam can do with epic scale material on relatively small budgets and besides some wonky CGI, this doesn’t disappoint. The women are badly underwritten, but the leading men receive some meat to chew on—especially Pryce who’s absolutely delightful. Driver is good as the straight man, but his role having no room for redemption makes it tough to see him as more than this nightmare’s genesis. His Toby is as insane as Javier and like him doesn’t know it. They both believe themselves to be sane because they are the heroes of their stories. This show business stuff therefore ultimately broke Toby too. Let’s hope Gilliam—I mean he—can still put himself back together.
 Toby (Adam Driver) and Havier (Jonathan Pryce)
 The Boss (Stellan Skarsgard)
 Jaqui (Olga Kurylenko) and Toby (Adam Driver)
 Angelica (Joana Ribeiro)
Courtesy of Screen Media, Photographed by Diego Lopez Calvin