I have, like all Terry Gilliam fans, been aware of this movie for a very long time. Its cursed production history reads like Greek tragedy, with death, deceit, and disaster playing starring roles. In all, Gilliam has been trying to birth this film for thirty years, beset by an Orson Wellesian level and magnitude of obstacles. The long-unmade movie even inspired a 2002 documentary, Lost in La Mancha. A brief summation and interpretation of these delays and their relation to the Gilliam oeuvre follows:
So the question: was it worth the wait? What a silly question. Of course it was. It is always a pleasure and privilege — at least for me — to be drawn into the dark, ebullient, mad, beautiful, terrible, strange, wonderful worlds of Terry Gilliam. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is reminiscent, redolent, of The Fisher King, Brazil, and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen — my very favorite Gilliam pictures. I fear though, given my impression of its ending, that it may be darker than most of those. (Spoilers ahead.)
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is about a self-centered, shallow director of high-budget commercials who didn’t use to be this way. Ten years ago, Toby shot a student movie about Don Quixote not far from where he is now on location. He changed the lives of the people who starred in that movie: not necessarily for the good. The humble shoemaker he cast as his lead became convinced that he actually was Don Quixote, abandoning his shop and his sanity — and making quite the neat meta plot point by so doing. And Angelica, the young girl Toby cast, was no longer content with living in her world either, suffering humiliations and hardships in a grim compromise for a starry life. Toby learns of these second acts when he at first impetuously, and later desperately, leaves his set and enters — the past? an alternative reality? a new present? all of these? — a strange new realm of skewed time and identity beginning with his rescue by none other than his own Don Quixote, who irresistibly subsumes Toby in his world as his long-lost Sancho Panza.
What follows is a dazzling, dizzying series of adventures where truth and imagination are often at odds, appearance belies reality, and tricks and tricksters abound. But because this is a Gilliam film, somehow there is always the sense that everything — like in a fairy tale — is going to be okay.
Until it isn’t.
In 2003, a big fat joint biography of the Monty Python troupe was published, The Pythons Autobiography of the Pythons. And towards the end, Gilliam says of the Pythons’ influence:
We’ve just maintained a long-running sense of the absurd and that’s got to be a good thing in the world, especially with George W. Bush in the White House, but it’s obviously not the effect we would like. Maybe by laughing at things we’ve allowed these people to take power. If people hadn’t been laughing and had been concentrating they wouldn’t have taken power.
Gilliam’s films are full of petty, toadying bureaucrats, enabling, allowing, and kowtowing to an unspeakably evil overlord. In The Man Who Killed Don Quixote — as in other Gilliam films — challenging this smug, cruel, self-satisfied villain are a ragtag bag of weak and often wavering adversaries led by a deluded old man.
They do not prevail or vanquish, but are ultimately ignominiously dismissed after Don Quixote dies — a death unwittingly due to Toby, who has for once attempted to face his problems, enemies, and fears rather than running from them. This shockingly sad development (but really, why was I surprised? It is in the title.) is intensified by its effect on Toby: he becomes Quixote to Angelica’s Sancho as they head off into the sunset. Adventures await and a new world dawns. But at what price?
Gilliam fiercely advocates for creativity, passion, individuality. But this ending suggests that insanity is the only way to realize these in a cruel and callous world.
Like I said, it’s all okay until it isn’t.
But until that point, what riches, what bounties of design and technique! The Knight of the Mirrors, whose armor is fashioned, according to the film’s costume designer, of CDs, making for a blindingly gorgeous display. And the insane headdress shown below illustrates the over-the-top Gilliamesque giddiness infecting every detail. Throughout, the pristine scenery and rococo sets juxtapose manmade whimsy against natural beauty in every frame: seemingly saying that we make our marks against an unfeeling, uncaring nature which will continue being glorious regardless of our presence or efforts.
All the actors are more than fine, and Adam Driver moves effortlessly from complacent creep to timeless noble. But I must single out the wonderful Jonathan Pryce inhabiting the title role. Den of Geek has a lovely long interview with Gilliam, asking, among other things, about the effects on the film of settling finally on Pryce after other actors considered over the decades had died or drifted off; Gilliam responds “That’s why the film waited till the right person came along.” And indeed. In the photo below, see the mix of kindness, craziness, guilelessness, and infectious glee as he chides Toby’s Sancho for presuming to think he, an illiterate peasant, could read of Don Quixote’s exploits; no, no, he will read them to Sancho, who can look at the pictures.
His performance is pitch perfect, and it made me wonder what it was like for Driver to play against, since Quixote is not existing in the same world as Toby. Which put me in mind too, of another pair of Gilliam buddies, Jeff Bridges and Robin Williams in The Fisher King. Here too, a cynical realist is sparked to noble action by a romantic lunatic.
And here too a masterful actor simultaneously conveys nobility and humanity, compassion and sadness: eyes that have seen too much but have never forgotten how to dance.
So yes, it was worth the wait.