The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

donquixote It’s well-nigh impossible to assess Terry Gilliam’s long-gestating, oft-foiled The Man Who Killed Don Quixote as just, you know, a movie. It became, in the thirty years since Gilliam first wanted to make it, the ultimate unrealized project and the ultimate Gilliam project — the two seem synonymous at this point. (Some of Gilliam’s aborted films — the list includes The Defective Detective and Theseus and the Minotaur — play better in our heads than some of his actual films of recent years play in reality.) And, oh, would that it had stayed unmade, to shine and thunder in our imaginations forevermore. But, alas, after several false starts and story changes, a film by Terry Gilliam called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote now stands before us. I feel a bit fond of it, because the whole thing understandably expresses a certain happy relief that’s been absent from Gilliam’s work for a while. But I don’t think I want to see it again.

The story now involves Toby (Adam Driver), a jaded director of TV commercials who started out as an artsy, idealistic filmmaker. Toby is in Spain shooting an ad that involves Don Quixote tilting at a windmill; after hours, he encounters, on a bootleg DVD, a short film he made in a nearby village years ago about … Don Quixote. I doubt this is meant as a coincidence, and indeed as Toby the spoiled Hollywood player becomes Toby the soiled squire, the fantasy world of delusion begins to seem here like a virus, highly contagious and fast-acting, spread by the combustible machine of a film set. In part, Gilliam wants to tie filmmaking back into its origins as a series of suggestive images that don’t quite cohere into a sustained narrative. In other words, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote — brilliant and scattered — is the same film Gilliam has been making for fifty years now.

Toby is drawn back to the village where he first animated Don Quixote, and finds the same non-actor — Javier (Jonathan Pryce), the shoemaker Toby cast as his Quixote — who now believes he is Quixote. He, of course, thinks Toby is Sancho Panza, and together they go on “adventures” that seem to drift in and out of reality, through various layers of representation. This may sound terrific, and you may spend some time feeling that Gilliam was somehow meant to be thwarted so many times in making the film, so that he could age into it. And indeed, there are some small threads of pathos that were probably easier for Gilliam to access as a 77-year-old man than they would have been at age 47. But though the plot feels busy, not much really happens other than the narrative eating itself. It gets repetitive; people are always unmasking, revealing their or others’ true selves. After a while we don’t care. I checked the time, aghast to discover there was more than an hour of this to go.

My fondness for the enterprise begins with Jonathan Pryce’s warm, surefooted portrait of Quixote as a man happy and fulfilled in his delusions. Pryce, of course, more or less played Quixote, tilting at the impersonal windmills of bureaucracy, in Gilliam’s ur-masterpiece Brazil, and here he is again, confident on his steed, driven by visions of the pure Dulcinea much as Sam Lowry was goosed out of his drone-tedium by the woman of his dreams. The picaresque, rambling narratives that so attract Gilliam are remarkably consistent. They’re also filled with two-dimensional people, like his honking, muttering animations for Monty Python’s Flying Circus back in the day. Gilliam actually can make a movie with real, complex people — flip back to 1991’s The Fisher King, Gilliam’s second masterpiece (a textbook example of a film made by a man who just turned fifty, I now realize). But this fantasist prefers to paint in bold, hyperbolic colors and thick lines.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is almost unavoidably a disappointment. If it had come out in the early ‘90s, or even in the early ‘00s, as just the next Gilliam movie, it wouldn’t have gathered the weight of our speculation, hope, frustration, and anticipation, which this movie simply cannot support (no movie could). Its effect on anyone who still cares enough to see it will have nothing to do with the mild, disjointed film itself and everything to do with all the ironies and mishaps surrounding its history. And yet here it is, Gilliam’s triumph — not really an artistic triumph so much as a triumph over all the obstacles and metaphorical floods and giants that kept it frozen in a curse of stasis, like a princess in a fairy tale, for three decades.

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