Oh, the trials and tribulations in bringing the story of Don Quixote to the big screen. Orson Welles tried for decades, lamenting that he’d just finish it on his own time. His adaptation would go through different leading men and shifts in setting, supposedly even… to the moon itself? Truth can be stranger than fiction, though remember what Occam’s Razor tells us.
Terry Gilliam, the bold man of spectacle no matter how personal and intimate, traversing the mind’s eye of every creative being on Earth, to unravel what makes us tick and tock. As documented in the documentary Lost in La Mancha, his late 90s attempt to tell a time-traveling variation of the fantastical story fell to disaster, injury, and financial hangups.
However, he never gave up, always tinkering, and always tilting.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is his contemporary take on Cervantes’ novel, dropping time travel and adding in an autobiographical touch. A filmmaker forced into directing cynical marketing campaigns at the behest of foreign investors who like to prank and use others for amusements. Sounds like Gilliam’s worst possible nightmare and where he potentially could’ve ended up at different points in his career. Selling out one’s soul. One’s creativity. One’s imagination. Adam Driver is the young director who, years prior, shot a student film adaptation of Quixote in a nearby Spanish village where the old man shoemaker who he cast as the one and only knight, has been living as his character, trapped yet free in a sense.
From here, Jonathan Pryce’s Quixote confuses Driver for his squire Sancho Panza, and the two essentially reenact the novel to various degrees. The foils, the flops, the scrapes, the bruises, and the chivalry too. All the while, a mysterious hand plays them as puppets. Plays them for fools. Gilliam clearly has some angst that’s built up throughout his life and work, getting it all out in the open through the ultimate dreamers who dream tale. The word “mess” has been tossed around in some reviews, but aside from some visible seams in the few computer effects used, I found the film to be quite affecting.
There’s an elderly and loopful pain in Pryce’s Quixote when he inevitably succumbs to his age and the “reality” that he’s a mere pawn and silly goof in an uncaring and heartless world. It’s deeply sad to witness the lengths that are gone to trick him in the climax, making his last words to a man he sees as “more than Sancho” something truly special and wrenching. Adam Driver may swear and cuss and rage out and light the scenery up from time to time, but there is still a charm to the smarmy self he has become. That he loathes by way of treating others poorly. It would appear that Gilliam is both the young but lost filmmaker AND the hapless but found knight at once. Two sides of a coin, two paths split at a crossroads.
Which way would you go?
Filled with references to previous efforts and nods to the love and very craft of movies (Quixote’s introduction as part of a carnival scheme roadshow for his black & white filmed exploits is absolutely precious), that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote exists indeed and does so with much vigor, much energy, much love is a wonderment all alone. And that it works on such an impactful level is a testament to Cervantes’ classic and to Terry Gilliam’s very spirit.
The man never gave up.
Perhaps not enough fantasy, perhaps compromised to a degree, perhaps too dreary and grounded. Or perhaps it’s all of that in the right places? There’s this interesting portion of the film dedicated to the idea that while cinema can be magic it can also be ruining. A whole village gone depressed and some villagers gone mad, all because of motion pictures. All because of an illusion. And there’s Don Quixote, goofy to the rest of humanity as he is, a champion in this community suffering from a dream lost.
And yet, it lives in one man’s ongoing quest. And through his quest, maybe we find that things aren’t so indifferent and cruel.
At least, for a time.
RATING: 5 / 5
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote comes to Zeitgeist starting May 10th.
Bill Arceneaux has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations, and Occupy. He is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association and is Rotten Tomatoes approved.