“The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”: A Terry fuckin’ Gilliam Movie

Terry Gilliam is kinda the more extreme Tim Burton in the way that Burton never makes terrible movies (well, okay, “Mars Attacks!”). His work is mediocre at worst, but – at least since his masterpiece of “Big Fish” – he also rarely gets above that level. Terry Gilliam, on the other hand, rarely makes mediocre movies (still, odd ones do appear, but they tend to be the more Big Studio-friendly attempts at blockbusters, like “The Brothers Grimm” or “Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”, rather than his more artistic works). When he hits it, he nails it (“Brazil” remains one of my favorite movies), but when he misses, he falls deep down into “the fuck I just watched?” abyss (his recent “Zero Theorem”, which looked amazing, but shoot me if I know what it’s about).

And this is a very special movie of his. I’ve been to a preview screening with introduction by a Gilliam scholar who very briefly told a three decades long history of making “Don Quixote”, and this helped me appreciate the movie even more and to notice some pretty clever inside jokes referencing his almost windmill-sized struggles (the “Act of God” or “this was supposed to be the only month without rain!” lines). Gilliam first thought of making a movie based on Cervantes after he’d done “Baron Munchausen” (another literary classic turned into an underrated gem in his career) and while his attempts failed time after time (the actors he dreamed of casting in the title role, John Hurt and Jean Rochefort – who’d spent nine months learning English specifically for this role – had died in the meantime; the finished work is dedicated to both of them), all the other movies he’d made in the meantime are more or less about Don Quixote. There even was a documentary about one of those failed attempts, “Lost in La Mancha” (akin to “Jodorowky’s Dune”) in which Gilliam fittingly spoke about himself as being a Don Quixote figure.

Nevertheless, he persisted, and his movie about the famous literary knight errant (and his faithful squire) is now done. I approached it with some reservations (buying a ticket for a preview notwithstanding). After all, his last truly spectacular movie – “12 Monkeys” – was over 20 years ago (am I the only one who didn’t really dig “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”?). Before that he’s done some amazing movies though. On the other hand, in the years since his other dream projects were the confusing “Zero Theorem” and the abominable “Tideland” (I can’t see anything but some deranged artistic vision would push anyone into making something like that). A dream project, decades in the making, and one that in the end was a quasi-meta-Don Quixote story that’s not really about Don Quixone but a filmmaker making a movie about Don Quixote and meeting a man who believes himself to be Don Quixote? Do you see how it bears all the marks of a disaster? Every sign on Heaven and Earth made me expect a pretentious construct of a movie that will just collapse under its own weight (a brilliant episode of “Community” about Abed making a religious movie shows just what can happen to such projects).

But then the movie started and I found myself feeling more and more hopeful. Gilliam brought some incredible talent with him: the cinematography is spectacular, the music is beautiful, there are nods to Spanish folklore, some poignant political commentary, Adam Driver is a fantastic actor and I need to watch more of him (while also being thankful his role didn’t end up to Johnny Depp, who was supposed to play him originally), and the Man of La Mancha himself is played wonderfully by Gilliam’s longtime collaborator, Jonathan Pryce. It all started to look better by the minute. I started to reason with my expectations: “this project was in the making for over 30 years”, I said to myself. When he finally got his chance, would he just blow it with a mediocre, heavy handed spectacle? Also, it’s Terry fucking Gilliam! This guy tore my heart apart with “Fisher King”! Unexpectedly amazed me with “Baron Munchausen”! Blew my mind more than once, with “Twelve Monkeys” and “Brazil”!

The movie is a specific mix of a bittersweet comedy (many scenes made me sincerely laugh out loud), pure adventure and magical realism (although the fantastical elements are always very cleverly kept on the verge between reality and insanity – very much a staple of the best of Gilliam movies), with a pinch of love and sentiment over lost past. But most of all, it’s a Terry fucking Gilliam movie. One of the good ones, that is. It had me invested from moment one and kept me to the end. It’s funny, clever, engaging, heartbreaking – everything you’d want from old Terry. This comes with a price (Pryce, even, haha) though: if you’ve seen a lot of his movies, you’ll feel you’ve seen this one as well. His Knight Errant contains a lot of Sam Lowry (Pryce’s character in “Brazil”), Baron Munchausen, Fisher King’s Parry (Robin Williams’ character) and Doctor Parnassus. No surprise here, as it was said every Gilliam movie was about Don Quixote (even ones he’d made before he first had this idea apparently). This is why everything seemed so familliar, but only in hindsight – while watching I really had (almost) no idea what will happen next.

At some point, though – this will be about the ending, but no spoilers, don’t worry – I realized where all of this is heading and I realized: this is a Terry fucking Gilliam movie. The same Gilliam whose endings (“Time Bandits” especially, and I’m sad to admit the ending to that is to this date the only part of it I’ve seen) had made me want to throw a TV out the window numerous times. He always ended his greatest movies in a most nihilistic, most brutal, most heart-wrenching ways, and everything seemed this will be a case here. And I really rooted for Adam Driver’s Toby, as he seriously grows as a character throughout the story. I wanted a happy ending for him, but remembering who the director is I started to prepare myself for a blow.

In the end… I won’t tell you. I’ll just say the strange mix of knowledge, preparations and finger-crossing was satisfied in just the right way. This is a really good Terry fucking Gilliam movie, the best he’s done in decades (fitting, as it’s almost as long as it’s been in the making). And while it can be interpreted absolutely realistically and everything weird either is or can be explained, it retains the amount of magic that will make you wonder: maybe, like The Doctor or Black Panther, Don Quixote really is an immortal being, more an idea than a person, one that just comes back every generation and can never die?

I wonder what Terry Gilliam will do now. I know what I will do: now that my Pirates retrospective is coming to an end, I feel a Gilliam/Adam Driver phase will begin.

You can read this and other reviews on my Letterboxd profile.

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