Terry Gilliam has been tilting at windmills for 30 years, trying to get his passion project, his spin on Miguel de Cervantes’s 17th century novel Don Quixote, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, made. Most famously, French actor Jean Rochefort donned Quixote’s helmet while Johnny Depp played commercials director Toby who becomes Quixote’s Sancho Panza in an aborted 200 production that was immortalized in the documentary Lost in La Mancha. Among the actors attached or considered for the role of Quixote in subsequent years were Gerard Depardieu, Robert Duvall, Gilliam’s fellow Python Michael Palin, and the late John Hurt (diagnosed with pancreatic cancer just prior to what was supposed to be a 2016 production start state) with Ewan McGregor and Jack O’Connell cast as Toby. This was a production clearly never meant to be, yet sometimes, giants are vanquished and miracles do happen as The Man Who Killed Don Quixote arrives in theaters with Gilliam’s Brazil star Jonathan Pryce as the grizzled Quixote and Adam Driver as Toby, the ad man begging for comeuppance.
The film represents probably the only opportunity to ever see Driver do an impression of vaudeville and early movie star Eddie Cantor, which he does with an inspired performance of “If You Knew Susie” that would be worth the price of admission alone even if Gilliam’s 30-years-in-the-making dream project was an utter failure. Which it isn’t, far from it. It was a given that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote would be an eyepopping production. It couldn’t help but be that, not with Gilliam’s longtime cinematographer Nicola Pecorini’s gorgeous photography, Benjamín Fernández and Gabriel Liste’s exquisite production design, and resonant locations in Spain, Portugal, and the Canary Islands that evoke both the 17th century of Quixote’s time and our modern era. What couldn’t be anticipated was just how well Gilliam succeeds in telling his story. Those three decades and all the cast changes have not gone for naught. This is the director’s most satisfying film since The Fisher King 28 years ago.
Driver is one of those rare actors that doesn’t need to be liked, which a good thing, since Toby is such a pill: arrogant, rude, craven, betrayer of his boss (Stellan Skarsgård), and just a general pain in the ass. On location in Spain where he is shooting his latest commercial, he stumbles on a DVD of his student film, a Don Quixote story shot in a nearby village. Nostalgia coupled with a need to escape his current circumstances sends him on a visit back to that ancient town where he discovers that his old leading lady Angelica (Joana Ribeiro) has gone away and become an escort, while the cobbler (Pryce) who was his Quixote has fallen into the delusion that he is the character. Reunited with Toby, he’s found his Sancho Panza.
What follows is a kind of wondrous delirium. Reality and fantasy intertwine, complete with cameos from a gallery of Gilliam monsters. Toby resists and embraces his new role, displays cowardice and courage, and wrestles with the idea that his little student film changed the course of people’s lives, and not for the better. Pryce and Driver, even at loggerheads, share a delicious chemistry. Pryce is excellent, imbuing Quixote with warmth and a gentle daftness, while Driver is magnificent as he portrays Toby’s evolution from a brat to a human being who just might reclaim his soul.
Thirty years from idea to execution is a long time to embrace a dream. It was worth the wait to see its reality. Bravo, Terry Gilliam. –Pam Grady