After 29 years and 10 attempts, Terry Gilliam has finally ascended from the pits of production hell, broken the curse of Quixote, and completed his loose adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel. Gilliam’s persistence and obsession with Don Quixote comes as no surprise. Cervantes’ delusional knight-errant jousting windmills that he mistakes for giants is as silly as Gilliam’s knights riding horseback sans-horse in Holy Grail.
Don Quixote encompasses all of what Gilliam says his films are about, “reality, fantasy, madness and sanity.” With The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, you get exactly what you expect: a madhouse of zany entertainment.
The novel is a pretty nutty package. A man from 17th century Spain reads so many chivalric romance novels that his mind becomes warped into thinking that he himself is an actual knight-errant by the name of Don Quixote de La Mancha. And so he sets out on manic quests of chivalry with a loyal squire that he picks up along the way named Sancho Panza.
But of course Gilliam had to add a few more nuts to the bag. Toby (Adam Driver) is an advertising director shooting a Don Quixote themed commercial in Spain. After a gypsy tries to sell him a DVD of a short film (also based on Don Quixote) that Toby made as a student years prior, he visits the old town, Los Sueños (The Dreams), where he found the actors for his student project.
In the now strange and suspicious town, Toby finds his old lead actor, who not only now believes himself to be the real Don Quixote but also mistakes Toby to be his squire, Sancho Panza. The delusional Quixote (Jonathan Pryce) brings Toby along on his chivalric crusades, which turns into the latter’s rescue mission for the woman he once loved and casted in his student film, Angelica (Joana Ribeiro).
Let’s reflect on this for a second: Gilliam directed a movie (based on a book where a man confuses himself to be Don Quixote) where the main character directs a Don Quixote related commercial and has made a Don Quixote film in the past, and then he goes on a Don Quixote-like expedition with a man who played Don Quixote in his film and now believes himself to be Don Quixote.
It’s madness..and I love it! The film thrives in confusion because the answers don’t matter. It’s the dream that matters. TMWKDQ’s logic progresses from haze to heavy fog, and in the end ‘who is who?’ and ‘what is what?’ are questions that cannot be answered, nor should they be. The more you contemplate the film, the more you pick up, but it finalizes as an unsolvable brainteaser.
Originally the script had Toby traveling back in time to encounter the real Quixote. After the film hung in suspension for years, rewrites were made and the student film idea replaced the time-travel concept.
“Now, [because of this script change], the project is about films and filmmaking and what films do to people who are involved in the making of them,” said Gilliam.
Gilliam’s failure to spur the horse for three decades came as a blessing in a hefty disguise because TMWKDQ is awesomely characterized by this wild self-reflection. What does it say about movie-making that Toby turns from passionate filmmaker to egotistical advertising director, that Angelica chases a Hollywood dream she was sold only to become an escort, or that the entire town of Los Sueños undergoes complete transformation?
Gilliam’s Quixote can be perceived as a critique of the popular method acting technique, where actors literally endure the sentiments of their characters. When Gilliam plays with the underside of America’s dream factory, ideas of misdirection and loss of one’s identity are provocatively manufactured.
If making films makes you lose your shit, then lucky for us, Gilliam started making films years ago because TMWKDQ thrives off of Gilliam’s brilliant mania. In an early scene, a character purposely stares directly into the camera. In a later scene, when Adam is conversing with a Spaniard, he wipes the English subtitles off of the screen and proceeds to speak the language instead. Are all these characters aware they are in a film?
The progression of fuzzy fantasy coupled with the numerous script rhymes is protein food for our right brains. Much can be taken from the picture, but just like Cervantes’ novel, this is ultimately a celebration of the human imagination.
Our wonder could have reached even greater heights if the magical visual touch that was so prominent in Gilliam’s earlier works, such as Brazil and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, was there. Nonetheless, a huge congratulations goes to Don Gilliam for keeping the dream alive.