It ‘s weird to think back on the time when Terry Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was something I anxiously anticipated. After more than a quarter-century of beleaguered development and aborted production attempts — including one, chronicled in the documentary Lost in La Mancha, which saw the entire location washed away in a freak rain storm — the completed film finally saw its release in 2018. Over that time, however, Gilliam has devolved into a fallen idol, whose unique, inventive films have gradually been undermined by both his public persona as a toxic old white guy and his increasingly incoherent style. Once upon a time, I revered Gilliam’s work, and I still cite Brazil as an all-time favorite, but I’ve also grown disillusioned by both the man and his later films. So much so that, notorious production history aside, the actual release of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote managed to escaped my notice entirely — until now.
Once I noticed, I couldn’t help but be curious. And the ultimate product — a frenetic, metafictional adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote — has a lot going for it, at least initially. This includes an inspired Adam Driver in the lead as Toby, a visionary film director (and obvious Gilliam surrogate) who’s shooting a Quixote-inspired TV commercial in rural Spain. The mercurial Toby is dissatisfied with the direction of the campaign, controlled by an officious corporate suit (Stellan Skarsgård) who represents everything he hates about the industry. Fate intervenes when Toby is reminded, in somewhat mystical fashion, of a similarly Quixote-inspired student film he directed years earlier. When he learns the village where he filmed it is nearby, he abandons his work to revisit it. There he learns that the old man he enlisted to portray Don Quixote, a simple cobbler named Javier (Jonathan Pryce), is still alive — but now believes that he is the real Quixote. The faux Quixote — Quifauxte? — seems to remember Toby, but mistakes him for his Sancho Panza. It’s a role Toby, driven by chaotic, farcical circumstances, reluctantly takes on.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote will likely be more interesting to Gilliam aficionados than to the general moviegoing public — which is to say, people familiar with Gilliam’s ongoing dialogue with the reality-blurring madness of the creative life will find this one resonating with that common theme. There are glimpses of his early, busy vision, too, in flashback sequences reminiscent of his work during the Monty Python era. The film has a crazed energy that gives the wild, uneven script a certain precarious momentum, and occasionally the lurches from reality to fantasy and back again are clever and deftly executed. As a whole, though, this one never quite gels into something truly successful, its attempts at madcap intricacy trumped by a general creative messiness. Like much of Gilliam’s later films, it seems the work of a talented mind restlessly overwhelming itself. Driver delivers an interesting lead performance, but there’s not much depth to the characters beyond that, with Pryce, Skarsgård, Olga Kurylenko, and Joana Ribeiro all fulfilling familiar functions. And in the end, Gilliam’s passion project doesn’t really explore ground that he hasn’t done so before, better. It’s hardly an artistic failure, and I’m glad it finally saw the light of day, but it doesn’t come close to living up to its production-hell lore.