FILM REVIEW – THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE. With Adam Driver, Jonathan Pryce, Stellan Skarsgard, Joana Ribeiro, Olga Kurylenko. Written by Terry Gilliam and Tony Grisoni. Directed by Terry Gilliam. Unrated, but contains violence, profanity and sexual situations. 132 minutes.
“It is accomplished,” sighed Jesus on the Cross, and presumably so did Terry Gilliam at last summer’s Cannes Film Festival, when after 25 years of false starts and heartbreak, his THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE at long last saw the light of a projector. Notorious as the most cursed film of all time, this loosey-goosey modernization of Miguel de Cervantes’ 1605 novel has been begun by Gilliam some seven times over the past two-and-a-half decades, with one attempt going down in such spectacular flames they even made a movie about the movie that couldn’t get made (2002’s agonizing behind-the-scenes documentary, “Lost in La Mancha.”)
Arriving with a touching dedication to not one but two actors originally cast as Quixote who died before the project could see coampletion – Jean Rochefort and John Hurt – the film bears the heavy weight of its tumultuous production history, veiled references to which slyly pepper the screenplay for insider amusement. If you squint it is indeed possible to imagine a sleeker, better-funded version of this tale showing up shortly after “The Fisher King” in the ‘90s, continuing that hit film’s M.O. of yuppie scum redeemed through medieval fantasy.
Of course things didn’t quite work out that way, and now “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” arrives on the heels of Orson Welles’ “The Other Side of the Wind” and Aretha Franklin’s “Amazing Grace” in a sudden excavation of cinematic holy grails so swift and staggering I expect the missing reels from “The Magnificent Ambersons” and that Jerry Lewis Holocaust clown movie to be dropping on Netflix any day now. So, after a quarter-century of legendary disaster and feverish anticipation “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” is finally here and it’s… okay, I guess.
Adam Driver stars as Toby, a sleazy, skirt-chasing commercial director shooting a Quixote-themed ad for a Russian vodka company on location somewhere in the Spanish countryside. He’s busy sneaking around with the sexed-up wife (Olga Kurylenko) of his dirtbag boss (Stellan Skarsgard) when a mysterious gypsy shows up with a DVD of Toby’s student film – an artsy, black-and-white adaptation of Don Quixote filmed a decade ago in the nearby peasant town of Sueños (the Spanish word for dreams. I see what you did there, Terry.)
Misty with nostalgia, Toby borrows a motorcycle and returns to Suenos, only to discover that his production ruined the lives of pretty much every villager involved. With shades of Dennis Hopper’s “The Last Movie,” we see that the gentle cobbler he once cast as Quixote (Jonathan Pryce) has spent the last ten years in character, believing himself to actually be the Knight of the Doleful Countenance and mistaking Toby for his faithful sidekick, Sancho Panza.
Even worse, the sweet virginal teen (Joana Ribero) our budding auteur coaxed in front of his camera ran off to make it in the movies and ended up as an escort – now an abused plaything for a billionaire Russian oligarch (Jordi Molla) who just so happens to own the vodka company Toby’s working for.
It’s easy to see where this is going, our knight errant getting Toby back in touch with the better angels of his nature by rescuing the damsel and titling at the windmills of late capitalist thuggery. What’s harder to grok is how it gets there – the movie lurches semi-coherently from one tonally conflicting set-piece to another, with story elements that erupt out of nowhere and are discarded just as quickly. (What was with that fire? And how about those dead cops?) The course of narrative in Terry Gilliam films never did run smooth but “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” is an especially erratic affair, one that deliberately avoids offering much delineation between the movie’s dream sequences and its highly permeable reality.
This approach leads to several scenes of startling beauty and a fair amount of perplexed annoyance. Driver heroically holds it all together with his exasperated reactions, flinging those long limbs around akimbo while finding continually inventive ways to fall down in the dirt. (He also frantically impersonates Eddie Cantor, for reasons that escape me.) There’s still no director as manic as Gilliam when it comes time for some chaotically cluttered, wide-angle obnoxiousness, and while “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” might find his gifts somewhat diminished, they’re still very much in evidence.
And hey, the movie finally got made. That’s a miracle in and of itself.•••
Over the past twenty years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.