“And now…after 25 years in the making…and unmaking”
So says the wry on-screen text preceding Terry Gilliam‘s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a near-three decade trek for the eccentric filmmaker whose hope of bringing his off-kilter adventure-comedy to fruition has languished in development hell since its beginnings in 1989.
Once intended to be a moderately-budgeted, non-US financed production with Johnny Depp and then-partner Vanessa Paradis headlining, Gilliam suffered set-backs almost from the get-go when insurance problems, departing actors, and set destruction led the film to inevitable cancellation.
His exhaustive endeavour was chronicled in the 2002 doco Lost In La Mancha (itself a far better product than what has ultimately transpired here). Our exhaustive endeavour – this overly long (132 minutes!), only sporadically amusing venture – is best left travelled for those who have a stomach for the inexplicable and the insufferable.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote‘s lone bright spot is star Adam Driver as Toby Grisoni, an egomaniacal director who is unexpectedly reunited with his past when a commercial shoot in Spain goes awry; a role that Depp, Robin Williams, Ewan McGregor, and Jack O’Connell were all attached to at various points during the film’s stop-start production. Stumbling upon a DVD copy of a student film he directed some 10-years prior, a black-and-white story revolving around the titular literature character, Toby discovers that the inexperienced townspeople he cast in several leading roles have all seen their lives drastically altered due to the course of the film; namely, the lowly shoemaker Javier (Jonathan Pryce, a role that the likes of John Cleese, Michael Palin, Robert Duvall, and John Hurt were all attached to), who Toby hired to play Don Quixote, who has lost serious grip of his own reality in the years since, believing he’s actually the legendary character himself.
Imagination, or that of an escape from reality, has always been a theme running rampant throughout Gilliam’s post-Monty Python features, and the ideas battered around this film are rife with potential, it’s just a shame that any of the comedic or dramatic arcs Gilliam’s script attempts to travel down result in tiresome sequences that go nowhere; “There’s a plot?” Toby responds (presumably for the watching audience) when his volatile boss (Stellan Skarsgård) tells him to keep up with proceedings at one point during this taxing adventure.
Toby’s desire to set things right for the effected villagers across the course of the film could be seen as some sort of atonement for his arrogance, but The Man Who Killed Don Quixote never dedicates itself strongly enough to the right ideals for the film to appear any deeper than it needs to be. This, in turn, only angers the viewer (many of whom I assume are Gilliam enthusiasts) as such a labour of love should be bathed in passion, and the final product feels disappointingly void of heart.
Driver’s charisma travels further than this feature deserves, the bold actor giving his all in a role that elicits little sympathy but proves its saving grace all the same. Pryce and Skarsgård play their one-note parts with all the care of an actor hoping to cash their next cheque, and the usually alluring Olga Kurylenko (as Skarsgård’s wife and Driver’s love interest) can’t rise above her character’s shallow lasciviousness.
As much as one could admire Gilliam for persevering through his adversities in getting The Man Who Killed Don Quixote to the big screen, the final product sadly doesn’t mirror his tenacity. Flat yet frantic, monotonous and manic, this ambitious tale should’ve remained a pipe dream instead of culminating as the frustrating nightmare it ultimately proves to be.
ONE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is screening in limited release in Australian theatres from April 11th 2019.