The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
Well, at least he didn’t starve a horse to death this time. It took Terry Gilliam almost twenty years to remount The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, following its initial disintegration, during which original player Johnny Depp’s movie star career exploded then imploded, and original Quixote Jean Rochefort passed away (as a horse lover, Rochefort was understandably most upset about the equine; still, he gets an “in memory of”, along with intended replacement John Hurt).
Gilliam managed to make four movies in between, none of which had anything approaching the kind of raves of his early efforts (several were outright slated). His career seemed progressively ever cooler and pet projects less attractive to financiers. Fortunately, Amazon finally came knocking. And then, less fortunately, they exited (while the budget fell to half that of the original, without factoring in inflation).
The finished film still hasn’t been officially released in Britain, thanks to the rights tribulations surrounding the involvement of one-time producer Paul Branco, but where there would once have been excitement about whatever Terry had in store, there’s now a general sense that it simply isn’t worth the wait. Somewhere during those rewrites and shifting casts, Gilliam let his film escape him. Or maybe The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was never entirely there in the first place.
I’m a Gilliam apologist (although maybe not regarding the poor horse), and would count The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, in particular – with which this bears some similarities – as one of my all-time favourite films. If not the all-time favourite. But I’m hard pressed to find more than moderate pleasures in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Like everything post The Brothers Grimm (in particular Tideland and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is prone to indulgence. Not in the glorious Gilliam sense of unfettered imagination, but rather, in that it’s in desperate need of an editor who can set him straight (Lesley Walker, one of the two credited here, has been working with him as far back as The Fisher King, so perhaps indulges his worst instincts). The picture sprawls in ungainly fashion, eschewing clear narrative and character direction and as a consequence comes across as one long digression.
The reworked premise whereby protagonist Toby (Adam Driver) is now in advertising (rather than the original marketing executive), directing a commercial featuring Don Quixote in echo of a piece he made ten years earlier (“I made it a long time ago. It was my graduation film. It won awards”) is instructive, in as much as it’s needlessly involved and unwieldy, giving rise to haphazard flashbacks that lack effective transitions or differentiations even before the film has properly started.
There’s an intentionally autobiographical hue to this, which incorporates Toby having to face up to the ramifications of past decisions involving the student project; when he and Tony Grisoni revised the script, Gilliam outlined that “... the effect it had on many people wasn’t very nice. Some people go mad, some people turn to drink, some people become whores”. Unfortunately, this element never feels very serviceable; shoemaker Javier (Jonathan Pryce) was picked to pay Quixote but lost his mind, while, in an unwisely Woody Allen-esque reflection of a director’s attraction to a (then) fifteen-year-old, Angelica (Joana Ribeiro) has left her small village and become a “whore” (model and escort).
Toby hooks up with Javier/Quixote, whose flights of fantasy recall and invoke both Brazil and The Fisher King in their melding of reality with subjectivity, taking in the inevitable tilting at windmills. Soon “Sancho” is beginning to show indications of the same bug (a village that retreats to the seventeenth century, a stash of gold coins revealed as washers; these are nice touches, but ultimately rather fruitless in a picture pitched at one exaggerated level – and when I say exaggerated, I mean in a scatty, disorganised way, rather than the controlled, aspirational lunacy of his early films). Simultaneously, he is trying to extract Angelica from her service to Jordi Molla’s oligarch Miiskin (whom Toby’s boss, Stellan Skarsgård, is attempting to do a deal with).
The picture is, relatively, more focussed once Toby and Javier arrive at Miiskin’s castle, and Gilliam is at his most effective when foregrounding the collaboration between fantasy and reality, with the props and mechanics of Quixote’s performance in the court and the illusion of Angelica being burnt alive (again, this echoes earlier work: Baron Munchausen’s stage show). The problem is, when you throw in self-conscious exchanges like “Try to keep up with the plot”: “There’s a plot?”, you’re inviting agreement rather than applause for modest wit. There’s a sense that Gilliam can’t really see that story any more, in any kind of linear or even cumulative fashion.
Worse, his characters fail to come alive, and you certainly don’t care for them. Driver is good, but he’s too bashed and buffeted by the Gilliam free-for-all to make anything significant from the Toby role. Quixote/Javier isn’t a character, merely a cypher, so there’s no opportunity to feel anything for him or about him, up to and including his titular death scene (compare and contrast with Baron Munchausen, larger than life but given to fits of melancholy and despair). Olga Kurylenko is clearly enjoying the opportunity to dig in to the temptress stereotype (as Skarsgård’s wife) but Ribeiro’s muse is entirely forgettable (despite “becoming” Panza at the end).
Ah yes. The end works on paper as a neat loop/passing on of the Quixote legacy, but it fails to translate on screen. It simply has no impact. Comparisons to Gilliam’s other work are thus inevitable, but only negatives tend to come to mind. Don Quixote smacks of the unstructured, aimless fantasy of Tideland, in tandem with Brazil’s retreat into a comforting world of make believe. That film called a harsh full stop on such ventures, of course, whereas Munchausen concluded in triumph; Don Quixote offers neither. Toby assuming the mantle here is more of a shrug, but then the entire film is something of a shrug.
This was Gilliam’s first film shot on digital, and it looks it for the most part. While Nicola Peroni has done good work with the director, I can’t help think that sticking to one cinematographer for too long can breed lethargy of vision. It’s undoubtedly happened to Spielberg, and while Peroni did great work on his first couple of collaborations with Gilliam, his last few have definitely been less remarkable.
You also feel the lack of budget, that the limitation has both constrained its director and caused him to become more liberal with the elements he can control, namely running time. But I’m doubtful, given all the money in the world, he’d have made Don Quixote more coherent. It has the same kind of ramshackle, intermittent energy as Parnassus (a film I really quite like) but endeavours to try the patience with it, in the wilfully distracted manner of Tideland.
One might hope this would be a palate cleanser for Gilliam, finally exorcising himself of the spectre that has haunted him for two decades. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is intermittently effective – I love the irreverent “We don’t need these. We understand each other perfectly” as Toby sweeps the subtitles off the screen, and Toby in a passionate kiss with a goat – but it’s the work of someone trying to summon enthusiasm for material that’s long since burned out, and along the way has second-guessed himself and convinced himself to settle for second best in numerous areas.
Sadly, it’s difficult not to conclude that the director’s best days are long behind him, and that at 78 (yeah, a decade younger than Clint, but how many good movies has he made lately?), he may just keep on recycling old projects – a TV Defective Detective has been mooted – rather than become genuinely inspired and enthused by something again.