Well, he finally did it. 25 years after first trying to get this specific project off the ground, fantasist filmmaker Terry Gilliam has actually, seriously, truly gone and completed The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, an on-again/off-again production which started and stopped so many times that it’s almost impossible to keep count. (Even Wikipedia can’t provide a clear answer, since the project’s history is a jumble of rights battles, role recastings, broken promises, and the occasional full-on production collapse.)
There’s been a mythical aura hanging over the project for so long that it now feels suddenly surreal to simply bear witness to its existence. Few passion projects unfold as this one has and many years slipped by where it seemed like the movie would never be made. Impressively, stubbornly, Gilliam’s obsession prevailed and so, finally, here we are.
But is the movie any good? That’s the pertinent question for viewers, of course, because while the production’s storied history is a fascinating portrait of perseverance, it’s just a fun footnote if the end result is a total stinker. So it’s nice to report that the answer to the question, at least from my perspective, is a happy “yes,” albeit with reservations.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a raucous, manic send-up of Hollywood excess and the power of a dream, making it double as a commentary on Gilliam’s long-standing desire to see the project through. It’s the tale of Toby (Adam Driver), a stereotypically arrogant director who is currently calling the shots on a Quixote-themed commercial filming in Spain.
Fed up with production difficulties and personal stresses, he rides off on a motorcycle to clear his head, soon finding himself in a small village where he recalls shooting a student film that was also based on Cervantes’ Don Quixote. A lot has changed since those days, most curiously the fact that the old shoemaker (Jonathan Pryce) Toby had cast back then as the delusional knight has now, all these years later, assumed the role quite literally and wholeheartedly.
The old man really believes he’s Don Quixote and Toby’s reappearance in the present inspires him to embark on a fanciful quest, during which he assumes that Toby is his peasant squire Sancho Panza. A series of ridiculous situations follow, some of which seem to blur the era, except in a far less literal way than earlier time travel-focused drafts of the script suggested.
Toby wants desperately to escape the mess he’s in, but finds himself pulled back in at every turn, so he spends most of the journey in a state of comically frustrated disbelief. Much of Driver’s performance involves yelling and cursing at Pryce’s Quixote as each new danger is met with the old shoemaker repeatedly insisting on diving headlong into the fray.
The plot and tone risk becoming repetitive in these moments, but the problem is eased by Driver’s naturally affable quality that prevents his character’s obnoxiousness from being overly off-putting. While Toby is a selfish jerk for much of his journey, Driver remains oddly endearing. He’s almost a voice of reason in the midst of such chaotic absurdity and Gilliam uses that to his advantage, positioning the preposterousness of each situation as an opportunity for humorous hubris.
Toby always feels above whatever nonsense the fake Quixote is mired in, except he too is trapped in the illusion, left to lean on his wits to survive. Exasperation is his only escape. Of course, the role comes with baggage and the movie’s long road to completion adds an additional layer of curiosity to the casting. Johnny Depp actually shot scenes as Toby for the ill-fated stab at production that began nearly 20 years ago, when Gilliam came close enough to realizing his dream that a making-of documentary about the troubled production received a theatrical release.
That attempt was made not long before Depp broke through to a whole new level of superstardom with his colossally popular and instantly iconic turn as Captain Jack Sparrow in the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie. He’s long overstayed his welcome since as his shtick has grown stale, but early 2000s Depp could have been fun in this part, especially when teamed with the director that unleashed one of the actor’s nuttiest performances in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Post-Depp, both Ewan McGregor and Jack O’Connell circled the role, neither of which are as known for their comic timing as Depp ever was or is. Who knows how their takes on the character would have panned out, but the mystery has at least concluded on a strong note with Driver.
Similarly, Pryce is quite wonderful as the bravely bumbling Quixote, mixing equal parts clownish confusion and furious fearlessness. Reunited with his Brazil director more than 30 years later, Pryce is in a state of silliness that he excels at but doesn’t inhabit often enough onscreen. He takes over the role from an impressive array of once-attached performers: Jean Rochefort, who briefly appeared in front of cameras for the unfinished edition that Depp was going to appear in, Robert Duvall, John Hurt, whose version was halted before production due to the cancer diagnosis that would later claim his life, and Gilliam’s fellow Monty Python member Michael Palin.
Knowing those actors and Gilliam’s own sensibilities, it’s easy to let your mind wander and conjure images of others in Quixote’s shoes, but Pryce still makes the role his own in spite of the shadows that loom over him. The ghosts of the past are what make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote such a fascinating project anyways.
In its finished form, the movie ultimately feels a bit aimless, which might seem strange considering the circumstances of its extremely lengthy gestation period that probably should have sharpened its edges instead of dulling them. Still, a movie that’s survived so many aborted attempts has reasonably earned the right to meander here and there.
According to Gilliam, plans for the story were tweaked over time as he grew older and his focus shifted, so the movie’s journey to this point hasn’t been a static one. The project has grown with Gilliam and he with it, which makes the picture a potent document for any fan that has followed the director’s memorable career.
The movie’s ruminations on what an artist loses to their lifelong work have more resonance and weight in the offscreen story than the finally onscreen version, which is to say that the movie is fun and imaginative, but hardly profound in its messaging. This makes a certain amount of sense, though. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote officially exists and while it’s more a comic trifle than a convincingly insightful ode to obsessive inspiration, it still feels like an artist’s artifact that is simply happy to be discovered.