REVIEW: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

The film that killed Terry Gilliam…

World famous filmmaker, Toby Grisoni, whilst on a retreat to Spain to film his new project, stumbles upon the ex-star of his student film, “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”, who’s insanity has led him to believe himself to actually be the chivalrous, noble knight – Don Quixote.

Ok so… what did I just watch…

It’s difficult where to start when critiquing The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. If you’re unaware of what this film is and what it means for director, Terry Gilliam, and the film industry in general, then I cannot begin to manufacture a reasonable explanation for why this particular film is something to be celebrated but also something to be debated. However, if I could single it down to a proper moment to formulate an answer for you all on why The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is an important film, then lets take it back thirty years ago.

In 1989, Gilliam attempted to adapt the novel Don Quixote to the big screen with an original plot that strayed from the novel and instead followed a retired, looney nobleman returning chivalry to society… yet, the film was scraped because the studio didn’t fund the production enough to Gilliam’s liking. Other filmmakers became attached to the project, but eventually it fell back into the hands of Gilliam and his co-writer, Tony Grisoni, in the late 1990s. The newly written script by Gilliam and Grisoni would feature a marketing executive who’s pulled back in time to meet Don Quixote with elements of the novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. With his distrust of Hollywood, Gilliam turned to the European film industry to fund the project being, at one point, one of the biggest budget continental European films ever made with $32.1 million to be placed into the film. Finally in 2000, with a full cast and crew, Gilliam begun production in Spain on the film… yet, under a week into filming, a nearby NATO military base ruined audio by flying fighter aircrafts above the shoot. A flash flood then destroyed filming equipment sending the crew on a wild goose chase to retrieve vital, lost elements of the production. Several actors begun not showing up to filming as the project’s lead actor had to eventually quit due to prostate medical issues… and finally, the production was cancelled before the new year of 2001. The film’s investors filed an insurance claimed that cost US$15 million and also the rights to the film’s screenplay. Although, Gilliam still attempted making his passion project during the early 2000s despite nobody wanting to finance it since producers begun calling the project ‘cursed’. Eventually though, after legal issues were settled, Gilliam regained the rights to the film and decided to reshoot it in its entirety. And just when it looked like the film would start production again, funding fell through and Gilliam lost another wave of cast and crew. Again with Amazon Studios, Gilliam came close to restarting production but after the deaths of several past cast members, Gilliam yet again halted production. In 2016, producer Paul Branco joined Gilliam to finally produce the film – yet Branco insisted on creative control and begun to cut both funding and the already low payments for cast members, leading Gilliam to eventually part ways with Branco. Gilliam and Grisoni though continued rewriting the film to keep its narrative fresh; eventually dropping the film’s long-lasting time travel element and instead altering the story to follow a young filmmaker encountering the actor who portrayed Don Quixote in his student film. In 2017, filming begun again on the three decade old production, despite legal troubles with Branco and further controversy surrounding the film’s crew leaving slight damage on the Convent of Christ in Portugal during filming. And then, miraculously, after thirty years, multiple casts and crew members, millions of dollars, several production companies and a mass of development hell unlike any other film project ever in existence… The Man Who Killed Don Quixote finally hit cinemas.

And here we are.

the-man-who-killed-don-quixote
(Amazon Studios 2018)

I heard this film was getting its long-awaited release last year in 2018, but, of course, living in Australia, the film didn’t hit our cinemas until a year later – and even then I was surprised Australian cinemas were even releasing it. Gilliam is traditionally known as an obscure Arthouse director, making cult film after cult film, with features including Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Brazil12 MonkeysFear and Loathing In Las VegasThe Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and the list goes on… but Gilliam has noted previously that a lot of these projects were made purely because he couldn’t make The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. So despite being a massive achievement for Gilliam to finally reach this point in his career where his thirty year passion project has at long last completed production and reached its audience, its also important to explore this film as a film still and not just another Arthouse feature that has been lucky enough to score a global release.

I do find it weird though, that a film so engrained in cinema history has seemingly just been released unnoticed by the masses. For a movie that has been in the making since 1989 by one of cinema’s most prolific directors – even for an Arthouse flick – its so bizarre that nearly no one I know or any film critics I follow or cinemas I attend had any clue that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote had finally received a cinematic release. The only reason I knew The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was in cinemas was because I had been checking showtimes for Mid90s whilst sitting in a lecture in university. My sheer surprise that the film had actually received a special event weekend screening led to head to the cinema immediately, only to watch the film with an audience of two… and that two was including me. So, the question then came in why there had been such silence surrounding The Man Who Killed Don Quixote despite its immaculate pedigree. I would like to think that the silence was just due to the fact that The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is traditionally a weird Arthouse film and the general public don’t care about Arthouse cinema… but I couldn’t help thinking that the silence was maybe also because of the quality of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote before anything else.

Even for an Arthouse film, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was bloody weird. Gilliam is known for his surrealist, obscure projects (I mean, just watch Brazil… or 12 Monkeys… or Fear and Loathing) and even though I wouldn’t say Don Quixote was that level of surreal insanity, it was… something else. Don Quixote was a film that moved in layers; to put it more appropriately, Don Quixote was a film that “evolved”. It started like a satirical film based on the filmmaking process, then after some soap opera melodrama, it became a film about self-discovery, which then took a hard left turn into an action flick before playing into the essence of a buddy comedy, a slightly Western adventure film and then a Shakespearen-like drama, concluding with the most ambiguous Arthouse endings I have seen in forever. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was crazy, but not just Gilliam crazy or Arthouse crazy, but more the crazy you would get from a mad man stuck in an asylum for thirty years…

Like I said, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote had an ever-evolving script, having originally followed the character of Don Quixote in a period setting before turning into a time travel film and now more a satirical film on the topic of film. It’s here in this screenplay transition that I felt Don Quixote scored its strongest elements, but also its poorest elements.

I won’t lie to you, in moments, I thought Don Quixote was kind of terrible – like really entertaining hot garbage. The movie felt like it was going no where and when it did eventually prelude an endgame to its madness, it just pivoted to a different, obscure side plot that would then carry the film down a completely different pathway. Don Quixote could be seen as overly tedious and unfocused – entirely uncertain of what it was meant to be. Then again, being a Gilliam production, these creases could just be acknowledged as a byproduct of Gilliam’s style. Most of his film’s are purposely insane and hard to enjoy, but in a likeable way… and Don Quixote existed in a similar manner.

My problem came with whether there was any sense to the insanity or the fact Don Quixote was just Gilliam being crazy for the sake of being crazy. Don Quixote was the closest thing to an epic that I feel the filmmaker will ever reach, but with its large-scale, did it warrant any of the madness it compacted into its runtime?

Having suffered through three decades of script altering and production issues, Don Quixote is one of those rare films where I believe the history of the project is necessary to understanding and furtherly appreciating the film as a final product. Evolving into a project examining the creative process, Don Quixote has come to utilise its original source material and past scripts to study the troubles behind the filmmaking process. Transferring the story’s originally adventurous characters into troubled directors, insane actors and greedy producers, terrorising Spanish towns and local folk, Don Quixote almost perfectly worked as a sudo-documentary, thematic commentary-type insight into how this film in general came to its final product. Detailing a single filmmaker’s decent into madness, following a series of mishaps and bad luck, Don Quixote near perfectly painted a self-portrait of Gilliam and his passion project’s thirty year journey to the big screen.

To look at the film through a more satirical lens certainly helped in swallowing the insanity of Don Quixote. When it eventually dawned on me what Gilliam was trying to cleverly communicate through his refined script and layered characters, I found Don Quixote a way more retrospectively intelligent and fulfilling watch. So, to round myself back to the original question, I do think there was credence to the madness of Don Quixote… although, that didn’t stop the movie from still feeling shaky. Not everything in the transitioning of scripts felt creased out and well refined as there were some elements that appeared slightly off, as if pieces of past scripts were lost in translation and weirdly kept in this latest version of the screenplay. Hence, Don Quixote was unfocused at times – and not in the cool, crazy Gilliam style. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote could indeed be examined as a satire, but it didn’t always work as the satire it attempted to be. Like I said, the film strayed too far into other genres to exclusively work as this meta commentary on the production’s thirty year development hell.

Still, though, part of me believes that, despite not being as memorable and genius as Gilliam presumably set out to make it, Don Quixote still stood as a fascinating film I couldn’t exactly overlook as the director’s possible magnum opus. Involving some truly surreal quirks reminiscent of Brazil and Fear and Loathing but also sequences of goofy comedy like Monty PythonDon Quixote appeared like it was attempting to tick all of the boxes of a classic Gilliam production. Even though not everything worked to complete satisfaction, damn was the film difficult to not feel entertained through.

A lot of the entertainment value definitively came from the lead performances of Adam Driver and Jonathan Pryce, who elevated the film’s material through their back and forth witty banter. For two roles which were previously filled by Nigel Hawthorne and Danny DeVito, Robin Williams and John Cleese, Johnny Depp and Jean Rochefort, Ewan McGregor and Robert Duvall and Jack O’Connell and John Hurt (and for a while, at unrelated times, Sean Connery and Michael Palin), I honestly could not imagine these two roles working with any actors other than Driver and Pryce… well, maybe apart from Depp and Rochefort (that would have been amazing). Despite that, Driver was so captivating as the stubborn, big league central filmmaker whilst Pryce as the titular madman, Quixote, was easily the best part of the film by far. The comedy found in the conversations between these two actors propelled Don Quixote further than it ever should have been as the two performers turned out two roles I never thought I would see either of them tackle. Joana Ribeiro who portrayed the film’s female lead also gave a commanding onscreen performance nearly on par with Driver and Pryce. So, on a performance level, there was nothing I didn’t like about Don Quixote.

The pure scope of this film, also, and how it swam through so many maddening skits and unholy scenarios of men on horseback, I just couldn’t believe how full-on Don Quixote got. Seriously, I have not been exaggerating here when I noted countless times how mad Gilliam’s new film was – like truly bonkers… but I was happy with it. I didn’t think Don Quixote was genius by any stretch, but I liked what I saw… as strange as it got.

Ultimately, I was pleased that I took a few days to write my review for Don Quixote. I think if I were to give my immediate thoughts on the film, it wouldn’t have been as flattering. I distinctively remember leaving my cinema experience thinking “what the…?” but now, I guess you could say, I have come to terms with what I had seen and am now seriously relishing it.

I could not exactly recommend Don Quixote for all audiences though; this was a film almost exclusively for cinephiles. If you like Terry Gilliam and have a fascination with film history and the filmmaking process I would certainly recommend The Man Who Killed Don Quixote to you, just for how fascinating a project it is. Yet, if you just want to sit down and watch a simple movie, not needing to expand your mind to do so, stay clear of Don Quixote. Yes, a grand achievement it was… but a grand achievement for a niche audience. To set the record straight, I was wrapped up in what Gilliam had on display in this weird and wonderful culmination of three decades of development hell. Also, I would like to have on record (*clears throat*) I SAW THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE AND I CAN CONFIRM IT IS A FINALISED, COMPLETED FILM YOU CAN ACTUALLY WATCH NOW WITH YOUR OWN TWO EYES – THE GODS MUST BE CRAZY!

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a bloody… CRUSADE!!

 

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