You could make a movie out of the thirty years of trials and tribulations it took Terry Gilliam to complete his infamously elusive Don Quixote project—in fact, a documentary has on the subject, with another on its way. Initially a straightforward adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ seminal novel, the film eventually evolved into a 21st century time-traveling pastiche influenced by another failed Gilliam project, an adaptation of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and once again into the glorious chaos we have today. The fact that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote even exists in 2019 is a wonder to behold, but still more incredible is how successfully Gilliam’s film works as the sum of its long-winded production journey’s parts.
Adam Driver leads as Toby Grisoni, a conceited Hollywood hotshot in the middle of a troubled commercial production using Cervantes’ classic characters. While clearing his head, Toby coincidentally comes across a bootleg of a student film he shot in the area ten years prior also featuring Don Quixote, and after nostalgically returning to the small town he filmed at, finds the locals he cast in the project in shambles.
Toby’s muse, Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), a young woman he enchanted into pursuing Hollywood stardom a decade ago, has since left the town and become an escort out of failure. Worse, the film’s Don Quixote, the formerly mellow cobbler Javier, has delusionally become convinced he is the fictional knight-errant himself and that Toby is his newly returned squire, Sancho Panza. A horrible accident soon after puts Toby on the lam in the middle of nowhere, forcing him to join the Quixote impersonator on a quest to get back to set and rectify the situation.
Driver is given a lot to do as Quixote’s reluctant companion, though his character isn’t very becoming until very late in the film. As an arrogant, selfish Hollywood brat, Toby is a terribly unlikeable, one note character that’s hard to root for despite serving as the audience surrogate and the film’s lead. Still, that’s mostly a fault of the character’s writing rather than Driver’s explosively energetic, expletive-heavy performance, which is full of great chemistry alongside the radiant Joana Ribeiro in an even better supporting role.
The film’s crown jewel is truly Jonathan Pryce, though. Pryce flawlessly translates the bubbling madness brewing underneath Quixote’s chipper chivalric exterior as a deranged man playing a deranged man. Magnificent and very likely the definitive onscreen Quixote, still more impressive is his ability to occasionally open a window at the broken man, Javier, peeking through the fictional knight’s exterior. As a function of the film’s meta-heavy plot and as a true adaptation of Cervantes’ character, Pryce completely knocks the impossible role out of the park.
On that note, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote goes above and beyond and simultaneously adapts a faithful Don Quixote story while telling a completely different, meta-heavy narrative altogether. The trademark whimsy of Gilliam is wholly present as the one-of-a-kind writer/director combines thirty years of rewrites and narrative into one cohesive piece. Gilliam simultaneously adapts and deconstructs Cervantes’ novel, combines his second drafts’ modern and period elements in a purposefully surreal narrative, and adds an additional meta commentary on the nightmarish making of the film and filmmaking in general. As nightmarish as it can get, the film is also really funny, to say the least.
It’s not as engaging as it could be, though, sometimes feeling like Gilliam is unsubtly venting his frustrations on getting the damn project done. The third act also bears a few strains, feeling a little too far apart from the rest of the film narratively and thematically. Still, with its perpetual evolution and bleeding loss of reality and fantasy, the film is never short of being a thoroughly captivating, fascinating cinematic experiment. The fact that it holds itself together under so much intricate craft-related stress is a remarkable feat onto itself.
After thirty years of patience and grit, Terry Gilliam has made the impossible possible with his brilliant The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.