The cinema’s great, mad visionary Terry Gilliam has longed to film a tale called “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” since the 1980s.
Talk about maddening. The man has had stars and money lined up (sort of) more than once on this ill-fated project, most famously getting underway with the French actor Jean Rochefort and co-star Johnny Depp in Spain, only to have every thing that can go wrong stand in his way. That made for a fine documentary about a film fiasco, a real-time catastrophe caught on camera — “Lost in La Mancha.”
One doesn’t need to recall that “Don Quixote” bested an earlier film genius, Orson Welles, to feel the production, the very title, is cursed. As this has happened to other Gilliam projects over the years, I even asked him if he himself was the one with the curse hanging over his career in an interview.
He laughed. But he didn’t deny it.
Now “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” is finished, and lawsuits over who owns the rights have further entangled it so that it will first reach movie screens via Fathom Events for it at a “one night only” showing at a theater near you April 10.
And if the finished film feels a tad labored, the editing a trifle tentative, it’s no wonder. Grapple with any idea for 30 years, drag any stone up a mountain as many times as Sisyphus, and it’s going to feel over-cooked.
But “Quixote” is lifted by its performances, startling in its originality and striking in its setting. And there’s just enough of Gilliam’s magical madness to make one relieved, at times delighted, that the “12 Monkeys” maestro finally got this one monkey off his back.
It’s an absurdist fever dream brought to life, a filmmaker’s nightmare of the line of work he’s chosen, the reality he’s bent and the collaborators he’s used and tossed aside.
Adam Driver is Toby Grisoni, a vain, arrogant director of lavishly-produced TV commercials. He’s dismissive of subordinates, clients, pretty much everyone. And he’s in Spain (the Canary Islands, mostly) doing a commercial riff on Spain’s greatest literary hero, Don Quijote de la Mancha. It isn’t going well and he’s burning through the producers’ (Jason Watkins, Will Keen) cash and nerves.
He may bark “Me Organ Grinder, you monkey” into the phone, dumping calls with “Gotta go. Hands to hold.” But Toby is cracking under the pressure.
“He’s a genius! He’s a visionary!”
A Gypsy (Óscar Jaenada) selling DVDs at one night’s lavish restaurant dinner distracts Toby from his worries, his boss (Stellan Skarsgård) and “the boss’s wife” (Olga Kurylenko). The video is of Toby’s student film, “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote.” That black and white movie’s daring style, non-professional cast and memories take over his life.
Before he knows it, he’s revisiting the village of Los Suenos (“The Dreams”), reveling in the sleepy hillside town he and his then-tiny production once took over, reminiscing over the cobbler (Jonathan Pryce, in full twinkle) he cast as the hero, recalling the waitress (Joana Ribeiro) he lured into show business as his “Dulcinea,” and dodging responsibility for what happened to her and to his career.
Fleeing town, he still takes a moment to follow a weathered, hand-lettered sign, “Quijote Vive!” (Quixote lives!) to a shed where an old woman is showing his student film, projected onto a sheet. Damned if Javier (Pryce), his “Don” way back when, doesn’t come to life.
And The Man of La Mancha, slow to get into character back then, is in so deep now that he insists that Toby is his Pancho Sanza, and that he rejoin his master for his quest, to live outside this “Age of Iron” and “restore the lost Age of Chivalry!”
The real world present flips back and forth with the Old World “adventures” as Toby is recognized by actors and hassled by cops at some times, dragging his “Don” into his modern reality with him, and at other times it’s the other way around.
Don Quixote, the “knight errant,” totally immerses the jaded young filmmaker in the simpler time and his delusions of glory, honor and bravery.
“There you are, Sancho. You crazy peasant, always playing games!”
There’s jousting, rousting, courtly wooing and singing. They contend with characters confused for Muslim terrorists today, and Muslims fleeing Spanish persecution “then.”
The famous delusions of the Don are shared with Sancho with Toby, each man seeing a different reality; windmills as raging giants, wine skins come to life, with grinning human mouths, sheep confused for “Muslims, their heads bowed in prayer to Allah!”
Driver is more interesting, nasty and befuddled than he often has been on the big screen even if he is perhaps not the best of all the leads Gilliam attempted to film this with (Ewan McGregor, Depp, etc.). But Pryce’s plummy, over-enunciated hamminess perfectly captures the “knight errant, and his loyal “squire-rel!”
I love the warmth of his malapropism-littered lines, the silly way he pronounces silent letters in even familiar words (“Give me my s-WORD!”), turning “chivalry” into “CHEE-valry,” and waxing poetic at the sight of any woman, no matter how homely.
“I shall forever preserve your kindness in the treasure of my memory.”
Toby may have a hard time shaking the sense that he’s “in” a movie, and still directing it.
“Aaaaaannnnd…cut right there.”
But Pryce’s Javier/Don Quijote is florid perfection, making one grateful that this poetic hero didn’t suffer injury or death before filming could finish, like John Hurt and Rochefort — who might have played him.
“Tonight, we will sing songs to your bravery!”
But after so many years of struggle getting it made, it’s as if Gilliam couldn’t bear to finish it, or let “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” end.
I counted five edits in a few seconds of film that capture Toby/Driver parking and dismounting a motorcycle.
And the film reaches a bittersweet climax at the 90-95 minute mark, and feels for all the world as the credits are coming. Nope. Another 40 minutes bear down on us, with Russian mobsters, a real damsel in distress, “real” giants, the bonfires of “Holy Week” purging the world’s materialistic excesses.
Gilliam and his longtime collaborator (Tony Grisoni, who also wrote “How I Live Now”) may not have “lost the thread” in their heads. But they lost me for some of that, anyway.
Still, “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” is an absolute must-see for Gilliam fans and “film that never was” buffs. It’s a picture that crossed into legend long before it was actually, fully and completely in the can.
And it’s something to see, man.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Adam Driver, Olga Kurylenko, Stellan Skarsgård, Joana Ribeiro, Hovik Keuchkerian, Jordi Molla
Credits: Directed by Terry Gilliam, script by Terry Gilliam and Tony Grisoni. A Screen Media release.
Running time: 2:08