The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

April 11, 2019

A new Terry Gilliam film is always cause for celebration in my world. This one is famous because Gilliam has been trying to make it for going on thirty years. How strange, to finally have it exist, to finally have seen it. I thought it was beautiful and very sad (like a good number of his recent films) and very Gilliam.

All of Gilliam’s movies are about the collision of reality, imagination, and madness, and I love his films because no one tackles that topic quite like he does. Don Quixote, which is also about reality, imagination, and madness, should be the ideal story for him to adapt. The difficulties around it seem so laughably, ironically on point.  Art mirrors life mirrors art mirrors life and it never ends. (Maddeningly, the film’s lack of a wide release, or any release, appears due to legal wrangling with a former maybe/maybe not producer. I kept wondering why this wasn’t on Netflix or the like, even if there wasn’t theatrical distribution. I saw it on a one-night-only Fathom Events showing, and am apparently lucky our showing went through – scuttlebutt says other showings were cancelled at the last minute. And we wonder why Gilliam is so cynical about Hollywood.)

This is the story of Toby, a filmmaker who’s kind of a douchey sell-out and the walking embodiment of everything wrong with Hollywood. A decade ago he came to Spain to make a student film (and honestly, that early version of himself was also kind of a douche and a walking embodiment of everything wrong with film school pretension), an artistic black and white retelling of Don Quixote using local villagers in the roles. He’s back in Spain now filming a commercial, it’s going badly — and then he finds a local peddler selling DVD’s of his student film. He decides to return to the village where he filmed — Los Sueños, the Dreams — and discovers that the elderly shoemaker he cast as Don Quixote really believes that he is Don Quixote. And Don Quixote believes that Toby is Sancho Panza.

Reality starts to disintegrate for Toby in the most Gilliam-esque ways you can imagine. This is what Gilliam does best, the depiction of reality and fantasy bleeding into each other in ways that are terrifying and heartbreakingly beautiful.

Adam Driver plays Toby and Jonathan Pryce is stunningly perfect as Don Quixote, and I might be forgiven for being grateful that the film was delayed and stymied so many times so that we could get these two playing these parts, and the version of this story we have instead of the one that might have been.

This is not a perfect movie — it’s long, weirdly paced, dark and even ugly in places — but it is a Gilliam movie, and since no one makes movies like he does, and no one puts the kinds of images on screen that he does, I am still grateful to have seen it.

I keep waiting for something as full of joy and wonder as The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and that’s not at all fair. But part of what makes me sad is how Munchausen was so full of joy, and some of these more recent Gilliam films, particularly The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and Don Quixote, seem to be saying that that joy and optimism is impossible. After this film’s long, long journey to actual public release it’s hard not to see both Toby and Don Quixote as somewhat biographical, somewhat bitter, and awfully cynical. But then that’s also very much part of Don Quixote’s story.



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