It seems that everyone is obsessed with Don Quixote these days – Terry Gilliam, Jonathan Pryce, Adam Driver, Alonso Quixano… everyone except the general public.
For you readers whose literary interests stopped developing with Green Eggs and Ham, Don Quixote is a Spanish novel from the 1600s by someone named Miguel de Cervantes. Is it approximately 9,000 pages long and is about a delusional old man who, having come to believe that he is a chivalrous knight of antiquity, embarks on numerous romantic sallies to right wrongs and rescue pretty damsels from conspicuously windmill-shaped giants. The humour of the novel (which I admittedly got fifty pages into, felt I had the gist of it, and stopped reading) stems from the aging Alonso Quixano’s false perceptions of the world around him and his obliviousness to that fact that everyone is actually laughing at his genuine but blundering attempts at heroism.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a passion project by veteran Python and auteur Terry Gilliam, who decided to adapt the novel to film back in 1989 and has been going slightly mad ever since. The final product, which finally debuted at Cannes last May, centers on a young advertising director (Adam Driver), who is himself so enthralled by Cervantes’ novel that he once directed an amateur film adaptation of it and is currently using it as a basis for a commercial, which he is shooting on location in Spain. This commercial gig brings him into contact with an elderly cobbler (the venerable Jonathan Pryce), whom he coincidentally cast in the title role of his long-forgotten student film. The cobbler, Driver learns, has gone completely mad in the intervening years and now believes himself to be none other than Alonso Quixano – the Don Quixote incarnate. Together they embark on a quest with no destination that simultaneously tracks with Quixote’s journey through the novel and mirrors Gilliam’s own hellish attempts to get his precious film made. Simply put, it’s a loose adaptation of a novel concerning a tormented man who thinks he’s something he’s not, is itself about a tormented director who is enamored with said novel and meets a tormented man who also thinks he’s something he’s not, and was painstakingly directed by a tormented man who is so obsessed with the novel that he spent upwards of thirty years trying to free himself from its influence.
This is an altogether ridiculous film – it took a ridiculously long time to make and its very premise is too ridiculous for rational minds to comprehend. It’s a tale of madness, obsession, and the art of embracing both with a smile on your face. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the film quite a bit. It’s a very good film that speaks highly of Gilliam’s tenacity as a director and his sheer originality as a storyteller. The fundamental problem with it is that those who may not be familiar with the source material or the chaotic history of the film’s production may be left scratching their heads as to what they just witnessed. Hell, I knew what was going on and I found myself occasionally succumbing to impatience with its mysticism and ample two-and-a-half-hour runtime. That’s the problem with crafting a film that’s too reliant on narrative layering and meta-humour – even if it’s a masterpiece, its appeal is ultimately going to be very narrow because the majority of its viewers simply won’t be in on the joke. For example, Casa de mi Padre is an obscure Will Ferrell comedy that’s packed with hilarity, but if you don’t happen to know that it’s specifically parodying daytime Mexican telenovelas then the laughs may be few and far between.
If we look past its esotericism, TMWKDQ is ostensibly a comedy of errors not dissimilar to Martin Scorsese’s underrated cult classic After Hours, which is also about a hapless schmuck whose fortunes steadily go from bad to worse over a bizarre journey that’s beyond his control and comprehension. Just like Griffin Dunne, Adam Driver spends the majority of the film largely at the mercy of those around him, especially Jonathan Pryce (who may have been born for this role), and it doesn’t take long for his own perceptions of reality to visibly strain. We the viewer are then tasked with determining whether the power of Don Quixote is real or merely a tragic, highly-contagious form of madness akin to the trope of the Napoleon Delusion. Early in Driver’s journey, we witness him apparently warp back in time to a medieval village, where he must evade armoured guards with faces he recognizes from across Spain. The next morning, he dismisses the incident as little more than a dream – but was it a dream? A hallucination? Actual time travelling? A sign that Terry Gilliam was hitting the bottle in the editing room? Further along, Driver discovers a satchel of Spanish gold and gleefully stuffs his pockets, only to later realize that the pieces were rusty metal washers the entire time. I won’t reveal what this all builds to, only that it made the road travelled well worth the time invested, bumpy and demanding as it sometimes was.
Terry Gilliam’s films generally have a very surreal, dreamlike quality to them, especially in their loose hold on the principles of reality. What makes them so readily accessible is that his protagonists are usually simple everymen who are grounded in realism even when the worlds they inhabit are not. Like Alice stumbling through Wonderland, they are the last bastion of sanity and reasoning in a universe that long-ago eschewed such constrains with a grin and a shrug. Anyone who’s ever experienced a lucid dream in which they actively questioned every peculiar turn of the subconscious narrative but were ultimately forced to roll with the punches until the alarm clock sounded has all they need to enter and navigate Gilliam’s Imaginarium. The better films concocted by the proverbial dream master, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote included, capture that magical spirit of what a film should be – an adventure into the unknown. In this case, however, the adventure probably could have been trimmed by a good half-hour.
Ultimately, TMWKDQ it something like a small-scale epic in that it’s an epic experience for its protagonist and an epic achievement for its director, but not necessarily epic in scope, which unfortunately may have been the intent. It’s no Brazil (or even Time Bandits), but it’s worth seeing if you’re willing to play along with the shared delusion that beset everyone involved in its production. If Gilliam himself is Don Quixote, then we’re hapless young Sancho being pulled along behind him without a word of protest being acknowledged. There’s nothing we can do about it, so we might as well enjoy ourselves and embrace the madness.