The Man Who Killed Don Quixote has been appropriately quixotic as it went from conception to a limited release in the United States (one-night-only if I understand things correctly). The various starts and stops to Terry Gilliam's film were sometimes so oddball that the film threatened to become his own The Other Side of the Wind. Now however, after a nearly twenty year odyssey, we have at last the film itself.
It wasn't worth the wait.
Toby Grisoni (Adam Driver) is filming a commercial in Spain, using the literary character of Don Quixote as part of the campaign. Toby finds his life and career hampered in particular by "The Boss" (Stellan Skarsgard), who keeps pushing Toby. The Boss asks Toby to 'watch' his luscious wife Jacqui (Olga Kurylenko), which to Jacqui means having sex. The Boss accidentally also reintroduces Toby to a long-lost student film he made, "The Man Who Killed Don Quixote".
Seeing his old avant-garde black-and-white student film sparks memories of his youthful cinematic passion and of Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), the pretty waitress he cast as Dulcinea. Impulsively he rushes to "Los Suenos", the village where he shot his film to see about his cast of non-professionals.
It's here that he discovers Angelica has left for the big city of Madrid and turned into what his father calls "a whore". He also finds that the simple shoemaker he had cast as the perfect Quixote is now bonkers, believing him to be THE Don Quixote (Jonathan Pryce). Real name Javier, Quixote through a series of unfortunate events makes Toby his Sancho Panza, as they begin a bizarre odyssey that leads them back to Toby's abandoned commercial and ultimately his embrace as the new Man of La Mancha.
I thought that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote drew inspiration from Fellini's 8 & 1/2 as both revolve around directors who are struggling artistically. It may also draw from director and co-writer Terry Gilliam's own cinematic struggles (co-writing with Tony Grisoni). That struggle between artistic vision and commercial demands, between crafting art and making money, those themes are worth exploring.
In a curious way, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote may be a true portrait of someone Quixote-like as Gilliam, maker of esoteric wonders who fights to finance his unique vision. No truer yet symbolic figure in filmmaking is there that in Russian billionaire Alexi Miiskin (Jordi Molla), who takes advantage of Javier's insanity for his court's amusement. One can quibble on the fact that the film cast a Spaniard to play a Russian and an Englishman to play a Spaniard, but there it is.
As I kept watching The Man Who Killed Don Quixote though, my main thought was that while I "get" what they are going for I was never on board with it. Part of it is length: the film is a punishing 132 minutes, and you feel things starting to drag, particularly once Quixote and Toby arrive at the castle. You've got masked villains, heroes falling out of windows and few if any people concerned that an old man plunged to his death.
Part of it also is in moments where I asked if the film had an actual plot. Toby stumbling onto Angelica, now Alexi's mistress, while she bathes at a waterfall is too outlandish. Seeing Adam Driver as Toby break out into an Eddie Cantor impression as part of an effort to convince Quixote that he isn't "an enchanter" is almost sad.
Driver's Toby was in equal turns frustrated realist and youthful idealist, someone who could be lured by the luscious Jacqui while perpetually finding himself in oddball situations despite his best intentions. While I compliment Driver's surprisingly strong Spanish, I do question why for someone who speaks it well he at one point says, "Mi madre es en la basura", which translates as a bungled "My mother is in the trash".
It's bungled because "es" for "is" should mean 'being' not 'located'. If he means she is literally "in the trash" it would be "esta". Hopefully he doesn't mean to say "My mother IS trash", which would be "Mi madre es (la) basura". Well, to be fair what can be expected of people who think "Latinx" is a genuine word. Yet I digress.
It is not the performances themselves that are at fault. I think it is that the film can never decide to be either total flight of fancy or grounded in reality. This push-pull proves tiresome, and you feel by the end everyone is spinning wheels rather than moving forward. There's a scene where we see subtitles as Toby and Raul, Angelica's father, are speaking, then Toby announces "we don't need these" and swipes the subtitles away.
This pretty much sums up the struggle the film has between being fantasy and reality. Also, just a final Spanish note: the village's name of "Los Suenos" translates to "The Dreams", so there's that.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote could have been a great allegory on the creative process and the struggle between the artistic and the commercial. It just wandered too far out to fully embrace, but at least Gilliam got the film out of his system after more than a decade-plus, so that's something.