DIRECTED BY: Terry Gilliam
PLOT: Toby, a narcissistic ad man, discovers that the aging star of his student film has come to believe himself to be Don Quixote, and is enlisted as the knight-errant’s squire while on the run from the law.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: When he chooses, Terry Gilliam can go full-bore weird, but also has a long-established (relatively) down-to-earth side to him. In this adaptation he’s worked on for a quarter of a century, he does tap into his ever-ready spigot of wonder, but Don Quixote‘s story and style is grounded in a humorous humanist tone.
COMMENTS: At the cross-section between exasperation and relief, you can find Terry Gilliams’ The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Anyone familiar with his career knows that this movie, in the works in one way or another since at least 1989, has hung over Gilliams’ head like tantalizing, forbidden fruit. He felt compelled to admit as much with the note preceding the opening titles, “And now, after twenty-five years in the making…and unmaking…” His quest to make this movie was itself quixotic. Having gotten that obvious remark out of the way, I can move on with this review—much like Terry Gilliam can now move on with his artistic career.
Once an idealistic film student, Toby’s final student project was (wink, wink) an adaptation of Cervantes’ pre-modern-written, post-modern-toned classic, Don Quixote. Young Toby discovers his star, an old shoemaker “with an interesting face” named Javier Sanchez (Jonathan Pryce), while traveling through rural Spain. He also finds Angelica (Joana Ribeiro), a young tavern keeper’s daughter who he promises can make it in show biz. Ten years later, Toby (Adam Driver), now a flippant, shallow, and highly sought after TV ad director, discovers that their small hometown is a quick ride from his film shoot. He rediscovers Javier, who is locked away in a trailer, trapped re-enacting his role of Don Quixote against a projected backdrop of student film footage. Javier believes the grown Toby to be his faithful squire Sancho come to free him, and the two go off on a picaresque romp through the countryside, encountering friend, foe, police, producers, a battered Angelica, and an evil Russian oligarch. Throughout the journey, Toby’s grip on reality increasingly blurs with the chivalric world of Javier’s imagination.
Woof, long-winded. Indeed, about two-thirds in, Don Quixote chides Sancho “Toby” Panza for not being able to keep up with the plot. This movie oozes plot, sidetracks, and everything you’re looking for in a Gilliam fun-time adventure. It tells a story he wants to tell, reveling in the barely-controlled chaos of his flights of fancy and allowing plenty of potshots at the money men who have done their level best to thwart him over the years. What bitterness there is, though, is well coated in humor, and the whole tone is one of joyful excess.
Having read “Don Quixote” a few years back (mostly while sobering up or hungover), little snatches of the story resurfaced in my memory during the many nods to the source material. It also occurred to me that Terry Gilliam was the ideal director to bring that novel to life. “Don Quixote,” the book, is cluttered, long-winded, meandering, bizarre—and a work of comic genius. Gilliams’ oeuvre is all of those things, too. Having lost two potential leading men (Jean Rochefort and) trying to make this story and getting no younger himself, it’s a relief to know that Gilliam finally got his dream project assembled for the world to see; and a true joy to watch such a good movie made by one of cinema’s best story-tellers.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“It’s an uneven and unflinchingly weird movie… [Gilliam]’s He’s unafraid to dive into the shadows and root around for weird and wonderful surprises. There are gaudy set pieces and bizarre relationship dynamics and a tenuous divide between truth and falsity – all Gilliam hallmarks.”–Allen Adams, The Main Edge (contemporaneous)