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Tilting at windmills – ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’

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Making a movie – any movie – is a monumental task to undertake. No matter whether you’re talking about an indie feature or a summer blockbuster, there are plenty of obstacles to overcome. But sometimes a particular film, for whatever reason, is just that much harder to make than most.

Terry Gilliam’s passion project “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” is one such film, a mishap-riddled odyssey 25 years in the making. Directed by Gilliam from a script he co-wrote with Tony Grisoni, it’s the end result of a quarter-century of false starts and natural disasters, of casting and recasting and shooting and reshooting. The production dealt with so many issues of varying types that one would be forgiven for believing the entire project to be somehow cursed.

After many years, the film was finally completed in 2018. And yet, the difficulties weren’t done even then; some messy legal issues between Gilliam and a former producer on the film resulted in a wonky, uneven release schedule; the movie didn’t reach American screens (non-festival edition) until now, with a limited theatrical run quickly followed by a VOD drop.

One would expect a film that had been through so many iterations to be haphazard and scattered, jagged and rough-edged. And frankly, those terms describe “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” in a lot of ways. But those viewers who are able to look beyond the surface jankiness will see Gilliam’s unique vision at work; there’s enough here – particularly for Gilliam’s fans (among whom I include myself) – to illustrate the clear, fierce passion that the director has for this story.

It’s an uneven and unflinchingly weird movie, which surprises no one; it bears the marks of both his love and his desperation and wears them proudly – and really, how else could it have gone?

Toby (Adam Driver, “BlacKkKlansman”) is a commercial director. His current project is part of a campaign for an energy company; his conceit is to do a riff on the legendary story of Don Quixote – specifically, the whole tilting of windmills thing. However, he’s regretting his choices and doubting his vision, much to the chagrin of his entire crew.

Things get strange when Toby unexpectedly finds a bootleg version of a student film he made a decade prior – one that coincidentally shared a general location and subject with his current undertaking (i.e. Spain and Don Quixote). He has the unwavering support of The Boss (Stellan Skarsgard, “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again”) … right up until he winds up in a dalliance with The Boss’s wife Jacqui (Olga Kurylenko, “Johnny English Strikes Again”).

They get stranger when Toby decides to go back to the small village where he filmed his first film. It is there that he learns that Angelica (Joana Ribeiro, “The Black Book”), the tavernkeeper’s daughter whose eyes were made starry by her role in the film, has disappeared into the big city. He also encounters Javier (Jonathan Pryce, “The Man Who Invented Christmas”), the Spanish cobbler who played the lead role in Toby’s film and has never stopped believing himself to be the actual Don Quixote.

Toby escapes back to the set, only to discover local law enforcement waiting for him – first to identify the man that Jacqui has fingered as the “intruder” The Boss glimpsed escaping his room the previous night, and then for questions regarding the earlier incident at the village. As the police attempt to make their way back to headquarters, they encounter the self-styled Don Quixote, who has decided that Toby is in fact his squire Sancho Panza and hence is bound to try and rescue him, which he does with less than ideal results.

What follows is a psychedelic journey through the Spanish countryside as Toby is forced to reluctantly play his part as Sancho Panza. The knight errant and his squire stumble through various and sundry dealings with an assortment of oddballs and ne’er-do-wells … and the line between dreams and reality is thoroughly blurred, both for Toby and for the audience. The shifts from fact to fantasy are abrupt and unannounced, leaving the viewer to stagger along behind the narrative.

At times, we are in the world as Toby knows it to be. Other times, we are in the world as Don Quixote believes it to be. And it’s not always clear which is which at a given time, particularly as Toby continues to find himself trapped in the middle as the past and the present – both tinged with a healthy helping of dreamlike surrealism.

There’s no disputing the fundamental Gilliam-ness of this whole enterprise. In both tone and aesthetic, it is very much in keeping with his previous work. 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.

Driver puts his immense talent on display here, embracing the ill-fitting pieces of Toby’s character and somehow making them fit together. He’s a self-involved man being overwhelmed by circumstances – a classic Gilliam protagonist – and Driver really makes himself at home in a role once meant to be occupied by Robin Williams, Johnny Depp and Ewan McGregor among others. Meanwhile, Pryce is just as good as the sadly noble knight errant, embodying the deluded chivalry of Don Quixote magnificently equally through emotional highs and lows alike. He’s a worthy successor to those cast before him – Robert Duvall, John Hurt and two of Gilliam’s former Monty Python brethren (John Cleese and Michael Palin). The rest of the ensemble is solid – Ribeiro and Skarsgard especially – but the film belongs to Driver and Pryce.

“The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” was itself a Quixotic effort, 25 years of trying to slay giants by tilting at windmills. There’s no disputing that the end result is less than what it might have been – the movie’s overlong, with unsteady pacing and a few narrative missteps – but the fact that it exists at all is a testament to the talent and determination of Terry Gilliam. Chivalry is not dead, despite a quarter-century’s worth of efforts to strike it down.

[4 out of 5]

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