The story behind Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is its own quixotic fable. While attempting to bring Miguel de Cervantes’ deluded knight – and all the tilting at windmills that entails – to the big screen, the director became trapped in his own misadventure.
It was an idea that he’d first conceived back in the early Nineties, only to be defeated at every turn by stubborn financiers, lawsuits, and natural disasters. Unlike Quixote, Gilliam never gave up on his quest. Pure grit and determination has brought us here, as the film’s title card exclaims: “And now… after more than 25 years in the making… and unmaking…”
Following its muted reception at Cannes in 2018, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote quietly rides into UK cinemas in the dead of winter. It doesn’t seem worth the effort. Three decades can feel like a century in the language of cinema and Gilliam’s sensibilities here seem wildly out of step. It’s a messy, unfocused film that seems so in awe of its own existence that it can’t quite summon the energy to tell a worthwhile story. And what would it have to say about creative ownership and artistic delusion that hadn’t already been eloquently expressed in the documentary about Gilliam’s first attempt to shoot the film, 2002’s Lost in La Mancha? There, the allusion between Gilliam and Quixote felt sublime. The giants in his mind were lofty cinematic ideals.
Here, we’re meant to see Gilliam in Adam Driver’s Toby, a visionary genius who’s lost his creative spark. Toby is mindlessly recreating the Quixote-themed, black-and-white student film that kick-started his career – only now in the guise of a big-budget commercial that his boss (Stellan Skarsgård) hopes will secure a contract with a Russian vodka mogul (Jordi Mollá). He comes across a bootlegger with a DVD copy of his film, which was shot nearby using nonprofessional locals. Caught up in a sudden whirlwind of inspiration, he heads back to the village he used and hunts down his former cast: his Sancho Panza died from alcoholism, his ingenue Angelica (Joana Ribeiro) has run off to Madrid, and his star Javier (Jonathan Pryce) is still convinced he’s Don Quixote.
Somewhere deep within Gilliam’s signature surrealism (which occasionally draws directly from Cervantes’ writing) lies some promising questions: should Toby feel responsible for what happened to those dragged into his creative obsessions? Is art destined to leave behind a path of destruction? To answer either of those would require a level of self-examination Gilliam seems reluctant to indulge in. Toby may be one of the director’s dreamers, but he’s a far cry from Brazil’s Sam Lowry and his earnest fantasies – this is about pure masculine ego. He screams into his mobile phone and sexually harasses his assistant. No amount of Driver’s twitchy charm can soften the blow.
Gilliam ensures women throw themselves at him anyways. The film dips into uncomfortable territory here, so obsessed is it with upholding the Madonna-whore complex. Angelica is served up as an idol of romantic devotion (it’s important to note that she first met Toby aged 15), while Olga Kurylenko is handed the thankless role of wicked seductress. The director’s recent comments about #MeToo in this publication means few will be surprised by this aspect of the film, but prior disclaimers hardly absolve an artist of responsibility. As The Man Who Killed Don Quixote goes to show, some things are better left in the past.