Film Review: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote Dir: Terry Gilliam

starring: Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce, Stellan Skarsgard, Joana Ribeiro

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote spent almost 30 years in production and 17 years filming, with four actors taking the lead role before Adam Driver was confirmed along with Gilliam-alumni Jonathan Pryce in 2016.

Director, Terry Gilliam, isn’t the first filmmaker to be cursed by the endless project of Don Quixote. The late Orson Welles was haunted by the unfinished project for nearly 40 years, although the unfilmable novel dilemma that surrounds the film was already solved by Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, which relied heavily on the excellent comic talent in Steve Coogan and Rob Dryden and a highly self-aware presentation.

Gilliam’s style is too strange and often-unexpected to settle into straight comedy, while the unraveling of Toby (Adam Driver) as he navigates the dual nightmares of his past and present makes moments of dark humour all the more bizarre. For almost two thirds of the film, it’s a modernised, colourful mix of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Fellini’s 8 1/2 semi-incoherent vignettes of mostly strange characters doing mostly strange things.

It’s still Gilliam at his most weird and surprisingly confronting, and often what makes much of his filmography so unique is the madness that’s inherent in both the characters and the world around them. We meet generally unlikable Advertising Director Toby on the set of a commercial in Spain, where he discovers a DVD of a prize-winning student film he made (also The Man Who Killed Don Quixote). While reminiscing about the past, Toby journeys to the nearby town where the film was shot, and memory and reality blur into an increasingly bizarre mess and conclusion.

Along the way he contends with The Boss, a deadpan-hilarious and terrifying Stellan Skarsgård, and meets Don Quixote, masterfully portrayed with sad brilliance by Jonathan Pryce. But it’s the relatively unknown Portuguese actress, Joana Ribeiro, who adds much-needed light and life to large sections of the film in her role as Angelica, bringing an energy of youth and dream-chasing passion that contrasts well against Toby’s off-guard boredom and nostalgic spiralling.

Ultimately, it’s the unraveling of Toby inside a mad reality that carries us through much of the film, and Gilliam rarely misses the mark when examining heavy themes of sanity and the lost individual within society. Here it’s presented through the dualistic nature of creativity and sanity, and the work that drives its creator to madness.

While the film doesn’t always blend its influences perfectly, it is perfectly and uniquely Gilliam: a confronting and delirious examination of the individual in a world that is weird, incomprehensible, and often unfinished.

Oxford Lamoureaux

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote opens in NZ on May 23rd.