Its rare that a passion project film that takes more than a decade of production ever gets released. As such The Man Who Killed Don Quixote seeing the light of day, so being able to see Terry Gillam’s film after 28 years is a joy unto itself. Gilliam has always been a master of the odd and surreal, even if not always with the best films. But his work holds a special place in my heart, so the chance to see it on Fantastic Fest’s opening night was important to me. So without further ado let me delve into the film.
Our main character is Toby Grisoni (Adam Driver) who is an advertising executive who made an adaptation of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote as a student film years ago. The thing is, he feels like he’s sold his creative soul since then. Due to that and some troubles he journeys to the small Spanish town he shot the film he shot the film in. He finds the town in disarray with many of its denizens that were in the film worse for wear. Most notably his star Javier (Jonathan Pryce) who now actually believes he is Don Quixote and that Toby is is squire Sancho. Through more highjinks Toby ends on the run and stuck following the deranged, but purposefully happy, Don Quixote on a journey that makes him question the world and his life.
The number one thing I need to highlight here are the performances because I feel like they are the most consistently strong. Driver gives one of his best performances I’ve seen where he balances comedy and drama very well and really gives Toby a lot of depth. His role over the 20 years had been initially planned for Robin Williams, Johnny Depp, Ewan McGregor, and Jack O’Connell and honestly I think he plays it better than I feel a majority of those actors could’ve. Pryce also gives what I think is possibly his best performance of this decade, if not more so. He gives so much life and energy to Don Quixote that even when the film has issues you are watching for him. Joana Ribeiro plays the love interest of the film, Angelica. I hadn’t seen her in anything prior to The Man Who Killed Don Quixote but I really enjoyed her performance and thought she sold the relationship with Toby well. These three make up the core of the cast and really drive the story themselves and make for a fun time.
The direction is sometimes where I think the film falters, though I’m not totally certain that blame all lands on Gilliam. There has been plenty of news that international backers basically own the film now, and final cut so the version we saw may not actually be Gilliam’s ideal. But there are still some faults with the film that do follow Gilliam’s style that we need to fault him for a bit. One of the biggest is just unclear lines between reality and the fantastical elements. Its great to see those dissolve at times, but at others they just muddle the viewing experience too much as they aren’t as identifiable. Another is just the length as it felt like at times some shots and scenes were treated as too precious to shorten or cut. But it’s not all bad on this end as I find the general writing and the way its shot to be quite appreciable. Nicola Pecorini who worked with Gilliam quite a bit before and gets his style, does capture some gorgeous scenes in the Spanish countryside as well as some interspersed action. The script also has some wonderful and clever scenes to go along with the characters I enjoyed. The biggest script issue I had was I really didn’t like how it ended, maybe not even the last 3 scenes really. They really push the surrealism in ways that I didn’t feel felt earned and they make changes with characters I didn’t feel were natural. But overall I think Gilliam deserves a lot of credit for this being a fun and coherent movie after all this time.
This is far from Gilliam’s greatest films and not the magnum opus he, and many of us, hoped for after 28 years. But it is still a fun and good looking film that is worth your time in my opinion. I hesitate to give it any more than a 3.5 but I recommend seeing it if you get the chance, even more than that score might denote. If you have never seen a Gilliam film I’d say this may even be his most approachable work, and from here you can work your way back to classics like Time Bandits and Brazil.