I’ll be honest with you: This was not an easy review to write. As a devotee of all things Terry Gilliam, I burned through multiple drafts that had me sounding like a drooling fanboy rather than a calm, introspective observer and commentator presenting a review of one of the most anticipated films of this or any century.
See? That’s what I’m talking about. I went into my initial screening of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote with way too many expectations and background baggage to simply sit back and enjoy the film. Instead, it took no fewer than three viewings—and four drafts of this review—for me to appreciate and process Gilliam’s latest film without adding footnotes based on the long and harrowing story of a movie that materialized nearly 30 years after the director first went to work on a project that would become a textbook example of industry limbo.
Based on Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Gilliam’s vision of the classic story is updated and twisted around without losing the plot . . . most of the time. In 1998, Gilliam secured the funding to make the film as he saw fit, with Johnny Depp starring as marketing executive (later film director) Toby Grummett and Jean Rochefort as Quixote. Though production commenced full swing in 2000, the series of early challenges that are laid bare in the documentary Lost in La Mancha were matched only by an equally disastrous series of setbacks that continued through early 2017, when production on the final version was announced.
Along the way, Gilliam directed no fewer than four full-length features (The Brothers Grimm, Tideland, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, and The Zero Theorem) and two shorts (The Legend of Hallowdega and The Wholly Family). Not too shabby for an artist who still had his sights and heart set on bringing Quixote to completion.
It’s no wonder, then, that he begins the film with a title card that proudly states: “And now, after more than 25 years in the making . . . and unmaking . . . a Terry Gilliam film.”
And it is indeed a Terry Gilliam film, with all the spectacle that comes with such a description, not to mention the darkness, humor, and general sense of foreboding that are his trademarks, ever since he showed in Time Bandits how easily fairly tales
can take unexpected and troubling turns without the promise of a happy ending.
Featuring Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce taking over for Depp and Rochefort— let alone assorted other come-and-goers including Robert Duvall and Michael Palin—the film was ultimately, sort of let loose in May 2018 despite financier-producer Paulo Branco’s best efforts to
prevent its release. That was also the month Amazon Studios backed out of a deal to distribute Quixote in the U.S.
Jumping to the present, Quixote made few appearances in U.S. theaters but is now resting comfortably on Blu-ray and Amazon Prime Video. Not exactly the big-screen experience the typical Gilliam film deserves, but unlike his earliest solo efforts, especially Brazil, Quixote translates well to smaller screens. There is visual payback when viewing it on a big screen, yet the story and images are compelling on any reasonably-sized display.
Despite the well-publicized departures of the film’s former stars, Driver and Pryce are custom-tailored to their respective roles. Pryce’s depiction of Javier, a Spanish cobbler enlisted to appear in Grummett’s student production of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, is nothing short of sublime. We watch Javier move from being a shy hermit to a hero, at least in his own mind, as he gets to portray Quixote.
While in Spain years later to direct a TV commercial, Grummett discovers a copy of his old student flick, and sets out to the village where it was filmed. And, surprise, that’s where he encounters Javier, who not only still believes he is the real Quixote but that Grummett is Sancho Panza. Out of a sense of guilt for the man’s current state of mind combined with equal parts boredom with his current project and a sense of adventure, Grummett joins Javier on a journey that takes the two of them through encounters with the authorities, and a confrontation with a local who believes Grummett is responsible for his daughter leaving home to become an actress, only to find herself years later working as an escort.
As in many of Gilliam’s signature films, fantastical plot lines and troubling twists are held together with a sense of empathy for lead characters who are at once imperfect and wholly agreeable, in that order. Driver appears to revel in playing an over-the-top narcissist whose conscience drives him along on an adventure that is antithetical to anything Grummett, now a successful, lascivious director, ever had on his bucket list. He yells, he laughs, he even belts out the Eddie Cantor classic, “If You Knew Susie (Like I Know Susie),” complete with a dance routine.
Similar to some of Gilliam’s other 21st-century productions, especially The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Quixote revels in engrossing characters as the plot occasionally derails and characters lose some of their charm over the course of the film. Yet the life-or-death battles in the third act will reward viewers who stick with the flick until the end.
Gilliam is known for creating large, lavish sets with extensive use of otherworldly special effects to build upon otherwise familiar settings. (Think of his Vegas-on-LSD sequences in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.) Though set in the modern era, many of Quixote’s more harrowing scenes convey a sense of imminent danger, even though there are no outward signs of its arrival until well into the denouement.
Considering the director’s talents as a visual storyteller who first gained worldwide fame as Monty Python’s resident animator, the settings are presented as boldly and as colorfully as the terrain allows, with imagery that pops off the screen. The soundtrack is more subdued, with a subtle mix that serves the purpose without calling attention to itself.
In retrospect, it makes sense that Quixote received high praise at the Cannes Film Festival only to drizzle into limited availability in the streaming world, with barely a beep’s worth of promotion by Amazon. However, I disagree with Gilliam’s reference to “unmaking” in the title card. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a cinematic triumph by any standard, and a worthwhile investment of two hours for fans of adventure and comedy that will leave the viewer on edge. It’s what Terry Gilliam does best.
Longtime consumer and professional technology specialist Adam Sohmer is president
and owner of Sohmer Associates, LLC, a Brooklyn, NY-based public relations & marketing
communications boutique agency catering to leading audio, video, and wireless brands.
Even longer than his career is his obsession with music and movies, and the gear used to
bring them to life. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.