‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’ Review: Terry Gilliam’s Long-Awaited Passion Project Has Little Magic

     May 18, 2018

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Terry Gilliam has tried to make a movie based on Miguel de CervantesDon Quixote for almost thirty years. There have been fits and starts, a production so cursed it was retold in an acclaimed documentary (Lost in La Mancha), lawsuits, strokes, herniated discs and enough articles about whether the movie might ever happen that if you lined them up together they would circle the earth. Okay, that last one might be a slight exaggeration, but even just a few years ago the idea the movie would ever be made seemed as likely as the election of the current president of the United States. The good news is The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is finished and, despite a ton of legal maneuvering from a disgruntled producer, it’s going to be released in theaters in France. The disappointing news is that as a movie, it simply doesn’t live up to its storied legacy in the annals of Hollywood film development.

Intriguingly, the movie actually starts out about the making of a TV commercial, one directed by the affected Toby Grisoni (Adam Driver, fantastic), a filmmaker who simply can’t be bothered to focus his current gig, a Vodka ad inspired by none other than Don Quxiote. Of course, the Spain-set production is a mess. The actor playing Quixote gets stuck on a windmill and Grisoni’s got a pushy boss (Stellan Skarsgård, racking up lifetime Oscar credits) who isn’t making things any easier. Does that sound familiar to the trials and tribulations Gilliam went through over the years? Smart, reader.

During a production dinner at a local restaurant, a gypsy (Óscar Jaenada, perfectly whimsical), sells Grisoni a DVD familiar cover. It’s a black and white Don Quixote movie he’d made as his student film in a small village nearby 10 years earlier (note: how this character has the film on DVD is never resolved or brought up again). Grisoni cast non-professional actors from the town in the film and it reminds him of a time when he wasn’t so jaded (why he wouldn’t remember over two months of living in that part of Spain is head scratching).

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Image via Cannes/@DiegoLopezCalvin

Bored on set the next day, Grisoni jumps on a motorbike to visit the village and discovers a lot has changed. Angelica (Joana Ribeiro, charismatic), the 15-year-old girl ingenue, is gone and her father blames Grisoni for her fate (more on that in a minute); the actor who played Quixote’s squire Sancho has died; and the shoemaker who portrayed the title character now actually believes he’s Don Quixote (Jonathan Pryce, wonderfully committed). Moreover, Quixote doesn’t react well to Grisoni insisting he’s not the real deal and their scuffle ends up accidentally setting his carnival carriage on fire.

Before long the local police, Moroccan refuges, a mob-boss like Russian Vodka King (Jordi Mollà, a missed opportunity), The Boss’ sexy girlfriend (Olga Kurylenko, turning water into wine) and a yearly holiday festival, among other things, are introduced to the story. And, of course, Angelica returns all grown up with her dreams of movie stardom crushed as she currently makes ends meet as the Vodka King’s paid escort. A revelation Grisoni simply can’t live with.

Most of the movie, however, finds Grisoni accompanying Quixote across the gorgeous Spanish countryside as he pretends to be his new squire. Following some unavoidable consternation on Grisoni’s part they eventually bond and our hero seems intent on saving both Quixote and Angelica even if they have no interest in being saved themselves.

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Image via Cannes/@DiegoLopezCalvin

Gilliam has said over the years he was inspired by the original Don Quixote novel because of similar themes he saw in the book and in his own work. Those ideas may have been more prevalent in the earlier incarnations Gilliam tried to put to film, but they are almost completely absent here. Instead, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote feels like a slightly conventional studio tale, and you could argue next to The Fisher King it’s the most Hollywood movie he’s ever made.

Happily, there are moments when some of Gilliam’s wonderful imagination brings the movie to life. At one point early on, Grisoni wipes away the English-language subtitles for Spanish-speaking ones and says something along the lines of “we all know what you’re talking about.” And as the film progresses, the hallucinations Grisoni experiences become more and more beautiful to look at even if they are less inspired than you’d expect (it’s worth noting the film’s budget was reportedly under $20 million and the below-the-line talent wonderfully make it look like it cost significantly more). As the film drives towards its inevitable conclusion, though, there simply isn’t enough of the legendary Gilliam touch to really make you care.

But it got made. And Adam Driver proved he can carry a movie that a studio might have greenlit all on his own. And, again, it got made, right? That’s got to count for something.

Grade: C

To catch up on all of our Cannes 2018 coverage, peruse the links below:

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