'The Man Who Killed Don Quixote'
The term “quixotic” refers to the exceedingly impractical and unrealistic. Some quests speak to notions of romantic, adventurous reaching-to-the-stars simultaneously with a ridiculous, near lunatic denial of the very rational obstacles that should prevent one from attempting such foolishness in the first place. There’s perhaps no film better tied to this central conceit than Terry Gilliam’s long-gestating ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’.
This is a project some quarter century in the making, having undergone everything from natural disaster to financial collapse and even death, all as part of an unrelenting goal by one of cinema’s most indefatigable directors to bring his vision to the screen.
It’s thus no small victory that ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’ exists at all, period. Anyone who has watched 2003’s magnificent ‘Lost in La Mancha’ could have easily made the assumption that the project was cursed. Yet still Gilliam persisted, and thanks to a complex web of financial partners (some of whom attempted to curb the Cannes premiere with a last-minute lawsuit) and one of a half-dozen cast renewals, we get after all this time what can satisfyingly feel like the version of this story that was meant to be.
A huge debt for the success of the final version lies on the shoulders of Adam Driver. While earlier versions of the production had Johnny Depp in the lead, a fine actor but one who consistently bends roles to his proclivities, here Driver showcases an extraordinary range that perfectly captures the Fellini-esque whimsy of Gilliam’s tale. We need to believe in this central character and the ride he goes on, morphing from jaded sell-out to someone intoxicated in the romantic adventures of his youth.
It’s fair to say that much of the appreciation for the film comes from reveling in Gilliam’s own quirks. There are echoes of some of his greatest accomplishments, including ‘Brazil’, ‘The Fisher King’ and plenty from ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’, and these moments are welcome reminders of the remarkable career for this ex-Python. In terms of where this one falls, it’s closer to the likes of his earliest film, ‘Jaberwocky’, a work that sometimes gets lost in its many asides and flourishes yet still holds much in the way of entertainment.
Long-time collaborator Jonathan Pryce is a welcome addition to provide further connection with these previous efforts, and the rest of the ensemble does well to make anyone feel that simply playing in Gilliam’s garden is the most fun thing to do. The movie has adventures and moments of swashbuckling verve, but equally well-executed quiet asides provide deeper character interaction.
The movie has flaws, to be sure, but it generates so much good will that it would be churlish to focus on them. The greatest feat of what may well be Gilliam’s last film is the very fact that it exists, showing that sometimes these near lunatic, quixotic quests are well worth undertaking.
In a landscape where franchise universes are carefully orchestrated, it’s nice to be reminded of the romantic, ridiculous nature of a mad auteur tilting at windmills in order to bring his vision to the screen. ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’ nearly killed its creator, but whatever the previous travails, what we’re left with is a film that’s both charming and a testament to the tenacity of all involved.