Man Who Killed Don Quixote, TheReviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 04/08/19 15:28:16
Whatever else one might have to say about the current state of contemporary cinema, one has to feel some small degree of excitement at the recent appearance of legendary titles that many observers figured that they would never actually see in their lifetime. Last fall saw the release of Orson Welles’s infamous “The Other Side of the Wind,” a work that had gone unseen for decades for numerous complicated reasons. Last week saw the kickoff of the release of “Amazing Grace,” a stunning concert film featuring Aretha Franklin that was shot in 1972 and shelved, first for technical reasons and then, once those were finally deal with, because Franklin inexplicably refused to sign off on its release. At this point, if the announcement of this year’s Cannes lineup included the world premiere of “The Day the Clown Cried,” I wouldn’t be half-surprised. The latest infamous title to finally arrive in theaters (however briefly, as we shall see) is “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” a passion project that Terry Gilliam, whose difficulties in getting his films made over the years have been so pronounced that even those who don’t believe in curses may find themselves wondering if there is a voodoo doll out there with his name on it.Of all of the calamities that have befallen his films over the years (ranging from studios refusing to release his work to runaway productions to the leading man dying halfway through filming), the traumas involving “Don Quixote,” which Gilliam has tried to get made for more than a quarter-century, were even more pronounced because they were so public—after finally cobbling together funds to make it back in 2000, he managed to shoot for only six days when the whole thing collapsed due to a combination of bad weather, poor planning and co-star Jean Rochefort suffering from a herniated disc, all of which played out before another set of movie cameras and became the eye-opening 2002 documentary “Lost in La Mancha.” In subsequent years, he would try to revive it only to have things far through at the last second and when he finally somehow managed to, against all odds, get it up and running again, I suspect that some film fans were still wary that it would ever see the light of day—smart thinking on their part since even after filming was completed, there were still plenty of behind-the-scenes complications that threatened to scuttle its premiere at Cannes last year, ended its American distribution deal with Amazon and has left the project with a domestic release that, at the moment, consists entirely of a series of one-night-only nationwide screenings this Wednesday night and nothing more.
As a result, when people do look at “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote,” they will be judging it on one of the oddest grading scales that any recent film has ever faced because of the complicated backstory surrounding it. On the one hand, some viewers may be so happy for Gilliam that he somehow managed to overcome the considerable odds and get his dream project completed that they may be willing to forgive any flaws that it might contain. On the other, some may look at it and decide that it wasn’t worth all the complications and controversies in the first place and that it probably would have been better off remaining one of those tantalizing dream projects that never quite managed to come to fruition. There was probably no way that the final version could have possibly lived up to the one that film fans have been imagining for decades—no real movie could possibly live up to those anticipations—but damned if Gilliam doesn’t come reasonably close here. Granted, the film is strange, noisy, misshapen, confusing, silly and clearly bears the mark of a work that has been jerry-rigged by any means necessary in order to simply get the damn thing done. Of course, these words could be used to describe virtually any title in Gilliam’s filmography. And yet, as messy and unruly and uneven as it can be—and it is all of those things in abundance—it nevertheless emerges as a weird and wobbly triumph, albeit one that is likely to split audiences more than usual, even by Gilliam’s standards, between those who embrace it and those who come away with it with nothing more than a splitting headache.
Beginning with a title card that cheekily notes “And now. . .after more than 25 years in the making. . . and unmaking” (after reading those words, you half-expect the projector to choose that very moment to suddenly break down), the film opens with the most famous image from the legendary Miguel de Cervantes novel—the aging hero, backed by loyal servant Sancho Panza, jousting at windmills that he has deluded himself into believing are giants—before pulling back to reveal that we are watching the shooting of an elaborate television commercial, either to sell insurance or vodka. (Some reviews have griped about this confusion but the whole joke is that the visuals are so divorced from anything else that they literally could be selling anything.) This mini-epic is being directed by Toby (Adam Driver), a once-promising filmmaker who has become a well-paid hack ad director working for an equally soulless and money-minded boss (Stellan Skarsgard). Despite appearing to be a typical corporate sleaze on the outside—greedy, vain, obnoxious and nailing the boss’s wife (Olga Kurylenko) behind his back—there is still a tiny bit of the artist that Tony once yearned to be buried beneath his polished veneer and that part of him is awoken one night when he comes across a bootleg DVD containing the student film that he made a decade earlier that he thought would lead to a career as a respected director—a version of “Don Quixote” that, funnily enough, he happened to shoot on the fly in a tiny Spanish village not too far from where he is currently working on his latest 30-second monstrosity and which starred a local cobbler, Javier (Jonathan Pryce), as Quixote and featured an appearance by Angelica (Joana Riberio), a local girl who was only 15 years old at the time but indeed possessed that quality known as “screen presence” in abundance.
After rewatching his old film, Toby is inspired to take an expensive break from the commercial shoot to take a nostalgic jaunt to the location of his first major project. Although his journey is presumably an excuse for him to take a warm bath of nostalgia and to perhaps find additional inspiration for his latest work, he is soon disabused of that notion and quickly learns that his calling card project has inspired an enormous amount of collateral damage amongst the people that he has barely given a thought to in nearly a decade. Upon running into Angelica’s angry father, he discovers that, fueled by dreams inspired by Toby’s talk that she could become a star, she left town to seek fame and fortune in Madrid, only to eventually wind up as an escort before seemingly disappearing for good. As for Javier, Toby finds him at a shabby roadside attraction that allows tourists with a few spare euros to get a chance to see “the real Don Quixote” in the flesh. At first, this is a relief to Toby—he thinks Javier is trading on his past as he himself is now doing—but that relief turns to horror when it turns out that Javier has essentially lost his mind and now not only thinks that he actually is Don Quixote but that Toby is Sancho Panza and has come to rescue him after all this time.
This leads, inevitably, to a series of misadventures in which Javier forging ahead with his delusion with Toby alternately playing along and trying to disabuse him of his notion. As time goes by, however, Javier’s delusion seems to have an almost contagious quality and even Toby finds himself beginning to give in to the fantasy as well at certain points. As they wander throughout the countryside, their adventures find them encountering Muslin refugees in hiding, gold coins and hordes of black-robed pursuers. Of course, what good is a hero like Don Quixote without a damsel in distress and not only does one eventually turn up, it winds up being Angelica. As it turns out, after failing to make it as an actress in Madrid, she could not bear to return home to life as a simple barmaid and eventually wound up as the kept woman of a sleazy Russian oligarch (Jordi Molla) who lives in a nearby castle and whose favor Toby’s boss is trying to curry in exchange for a financial investment. It all culminates in a medieval-themed costume party at the castle in which Javier’s delusions are first exploited for the sake of a cruel joke and then inspire one last stand in which he and Toby fight to save the girl and make things right—at least they think that is what they are doing.
Even the most ardent fans of Terry Gilliam’s work as a filmmaker would have to admit that he is stronger behind the camera than he is behind the keyboard—his narratives have a tendency to wander all over the place at times (it is no coincidence that perhaps the only two films in his oeuvre with plots that actually add up in the recounting, “The Fisher King” and “12 Monkeys,” are ones where he is not credited as a writer) and the non-central characters can sometimes come across as weak and unformed, especially the female ones. That is undeniably the case here as well as this screenplay, co-written with longtime collaborator Tony Grisoni, falls into some of those very same traps. Despite the decades spent trying to bring the project to life, there are moments of inexplicable clunkiness here and there (the most glaring being Toby’s bizarre inability until finding the DVD to realize how closely his student film and current cash grab are linked or to notice that he is now in practically the same area where he shot that earlier work) and the storytelling gets progressively hazier in the second half and not entirely by design. More troubling, at least for some viewers, will be the portrayal of the female characters on display here—the character played by Kurylenko is little more than a cartoonish vamp in her early scenes before becoming a shrill monster later on while Angelica, who demonstrate some fire and spirit in the scenes depicting her younger days, eventually becomes little more than a prop for everyone else to battle over.
To Gilliam’s credit, he does cop to these particular shortcomings and as the film goes along, it becomes evident that this is perhaps the most autobiographical of all of his works to date. This is perhaps not that surprising but what is surprising is that Gilliam is not, as one might expect, identifying as much with Quixote—a man who once dueled windmills with the same single-minded fervor that he used to battle movie studio heads—as he does with Toby, the Sancho Panza substitute who has his eyes opened to the costs of his own ambition and arrogance and who is torn between maintaining his cool and cynical demeanor and finally succumbing to the comparative simple delusion that he is the servant to Don Quixote. I have no idea if this was the original notion that drove the project in the first place or if it was one that eventually grew and developed in importance in the decades that the film took to be made but the result is a strong emotional core from which the more offbeat stuff can emerge.
I admit that if I were to be forced at gunpoint to recount all the details of the narrative in a way that allowed everything to add up, I would probably fail miserably at the task—that said, I have a feeling that even Gilliam and Grisoni would struggle at that task as well. That said, while the details of how the story goes from one point to another are sometimes vague (a trait that is pretty much baked in to any Gilliam project at this point), you still get swept along by the headstrong nature of the storytelling and the effective ways that the film shifts between the strange grotesqueries of present-day reality and the quiet simplicity of Quixote’s fantasy. Not every moment adds up, of course (the stuff involving the hiding Muslims feels like either a vestige from an earlier draft or something tossed in at the last second for additional relevance without properly developing it) but the stuff that does work is presented with such heedless energy and mad ambition that only the stoniest of hearts could fail to respond to them. If the notion that the world is in need of crazy dreamers—even those who are doomed to failure and ridicule for their efforts—is the running theme that pretty much links Gilliam’s entire filmography, then “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” could be seen as his grand summation on the subject.
In the original version of the film, French actor Jean Rochefort was to play Don Quixote and John Hurt was mentioned as a possibility for the role years later during one of the project’s revival attempts. (Neither one lived to see this version of the film, which is dedicated to their memories). Both probably would have been quite excellent in the part but Jonathan Pryce proves himself to be up to the task as well. To embody the role of Quixote, one needs to demonstrate a certain heedless abandon—a willingness to look foolish without ever coming across as such—and he takes to that with surprising ease. Of course, he is not really playing the actual Quixote and he manages to underscore his performance with that knowledge that comes to the forefront in some of the more emotional moments. In the earlier version, Tony was to be played by Johnny Depp and it would have been interesting to see what Depp, who at that point had not become the increasingly mannered presence behind a number of increasingly forgettable would-be blockbusters, would have done with the part. In his place, Adam Driver is good and funny and takes to the absurdity of the premise quite well but he sometimes feels a little bit removed from the proceedings, especially during a key moment towards the end that does not quite work as well as one might have hoped. As Angelica, Joana Riberio, much like the character she plays, does have a screen presence that is undeniable but her work her is hampered somewhat by the increasingly contrived nature of her role as the story progresses“The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” is a mess and I will admit that—it is wildly uneven, things don’t always make sense and it probably runs 15-20 minutes longer than it needs to. And yet, if it were possible to see an alternate version of this film in which all of the awkward moments and rough patches were miraculously smoothed out and wrestled into a more obviously coherent whole, my guess is that I would still prefer the original version in all of its unruly glory. One doesn’t typically go to a Terry Gilliam film in the hopes of getting a staid and straightforward night at the movies—the kind where you walk out saying “That was pretty good” before trying to decide where to get dinner. One goes to his films in the hopes of seeing things that they have never viewed before as they spring forth from the mind of someone not bound by the laws of common sense or logic. In that regard, the film is a success and at its best moments, it soars to such dizzying heights that even Don Quixote himself might think twice before taking them on.
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