Director Terry Gilliam has been trying to make this movie for 30 years. After numerous setbacks and actors moving on to other projects (or passing away), that this film exists and appears on the big screen is a miracle by itself. And Terry being Terry, he decided to make this enormous personal struggle of his to create this film a part of the film itself. I am not sure about this, but I don’t think it is a coincidence that a film that took 30 years to make is also about a failed film itself, and about obsessions that came with it.
It pays off to be familiar with Terry Gilliam as a film maker before going into this movie, as a viewer and reviewer both. He has had some great hits, like the Monty Python films, Brazil, Twelve Monkeys and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. You’ll notice that all of his films have been very surrealistic. Filled with absurdist comedy, strange science fictional concepts. Later in life, though, not all of his projects turned into successes, because they were just plain weird and audiences didn’t really know what to make of them. Tideland (2005) was rather off-putting in a fascinating way, but too disgusting for many. The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009) was a messy overload of effects and The Zero Theorem (2013), which I liked personally as a spiritual successor of Brazil, felt like it had no point to it.
But what is my point here? That entering a Terry Gilliam film has its risks, can be hit or miss, but is actually always fascinating.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is about a director named Toby (Adam Driver) who is failing to make a film about Quixote (how meta). He tried to make the same film 25 years earlier in a Spanish village, and now, looking for inspiration, revisits that same village of all those years ago. What he finds there is the old man who used to play Quixote for him in the past, but the man turned delusional and actually thinks that he is the embodiment of Quixote. Toby is seen as his squire Sancho. Things turn bad at the village and now Toby and the old man are on the run.
So while the police is searching for Toby, he is stuck with Don Quixote. Their adventures in the Spanish countryside are rather strange. They have this Gilliamesque quality where you’re not sure what is real or not. Sometimes they seem actually transported to the middle ages, or Toby is having a dream. The whole thing could be a metaphor for Toby’s past efforts in making a Quixote film coming back to haunt him. And just like mental illness is a theme in the original Quixote story, so it afflicts Toby.
Things only get weirder from there. Terry Gilliam’s films always have this nightmarish quality to them that you want to wake up from, and sometimes the film is just straight up baffling. Gilliam is operating from some other mental plane and it might throw you off. Jonathan Pryce plays a fantastic delusional old man in a role that you would normally expect to go to Johnny Depp. Interestingly, Depp was originally chosen to play the role of Toby.
Chivalry in the medieval way of Quixote means both a mental affliction and an honest state of mind. Gilliam plays with these ideas as they are sometimes completely inappropriate for our modern world, but the alluring ideas about a hero saving his love also curiously surface again in the big climax of the film. The narrative of having grand adventures is a defensive, protective way of thinking against nihilism, but as Quixote holds fast to them we are dragged into his state of mind and sympathize.
The great antagonist against Quixote is not the giants he fights, but those who pierce through his heroic state of mind. There is the empty greed, cruelty and Trumpian childishness of a Russian mafia boss, who delights in mocking Quixote, mocking his well-meant chivalry. These are invisible dangers to the knight, but we recognize them. Unsurprisingly, we cheer for the knight in the end. When the time comes when love needs to be saved and temptations overcome, Quixote’s code of ethics is suddenly what is needed.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a very strange movie but always fascinating to watch, refreshingly different from big studio films, with multiple layers of interpretation and made with great skill. At times baffling, at times brilliant; but your enjoyment will depend on how you experienced Gilliam’s earlier films because this is undoubtedly one of his.