Toby, a disillusioned director, recalls his younger days wherein he made a short film as a student, starring a peasant cobbler as Don Quixote. As he flees his current project he and the cobbler are reunited only to discover the cobbler believes he really is Don Quixote still, and Toby begins to slip into insanity himself.
It seems fitting that this should be the film around which so many of the struggles and doubts of Terry Gilliam’s career would revolve. The story of a doomed knight who is out of step with time is in some ways the story of Gilliam’s own, up till now, doomed efforts to create a film which seemed to be only an illusory mirage in his own mind, in which no one else quite believed as vividly.
With “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” however, Gilliam succeeds where Quixote fails and brings to life that vision sharing it with us all, transforming that Phantasy into Reality.
In many ways, this film exemplifies the best of what I love about Gilliam’s films. The strange acting styles he strives for, the quirky and slightly mad characters, the tenuous line between reality and fantasy, and finally, the epic battle between evil and good displayed in the everyday and bizarre alike.
To begin, Adam Driver (“Star Wars: The Last Jedi”)and Jonathan Pryce (“Brazil”) are simply transcendent in their roles as Toby/Sancho Panza and Don Quixote, respectively. Adam Driver has always struck me with his ability to play both the smallest and largest emotions with grounded reality. Pryce, as well, brings a warmth and nobility to the insanity of a shoemaker who has been caught up and driven insane by the belief that he is a great and chivalrous knight. The rest of the cast is excellent as well but the relationship between these two is the most vital as the film hinges upon us simultaneously believing in their genuine love and respect for each other as well as their shame and embarrassment at the cowardice and insanity that they each display to the disdain of the other.
Their constant frustration with the other is further complicated by the constant state of flux in which the world around them seems to be. At times Toby is as deluded as Quixote himself, envisioning his own film school sweetheart as a damsel in distress being held captive against her will by an evil and ruthless Duke, who it turns out is just the owner of a Vodka company.
Gilliam’s commitment to practical effects where possible lends its aid as well in this blending of the fantastic and real. As much of the film takes place on the set of a film shooting on location, one is always wondering whether the knight we see charging is really a figment of someone’s imagination, part of the insanity that Toby is being drawn into, or simply and extra on the film which Toby is the director of. The color and life that Gilliam excels at packing every frame to the brim with becomes a veil which hides the true nature of scenes from the audiences eye, leaving them many times with ideas about what is happening without and sure conviction as to what is happening. Like a dream which the viewer is trying to interpret even as they are caught up in it, the film is constantly convincing you that you know what is happening and then pulling the rug out from under you.
This quality in Gilliam is perhaps my favorite. Somehow in this madness he is able to create characters that are both mythic and mundane at the same time. Like in “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen” it is never really clear whether the characters are really who they claim to be or only symbolic stand ins for Gilliam’s own knights and windmills. Regardless, I thrill to see him tilt his lance again and if some of his own madness is in his dogged determination to see this film eventually live, then I for one will not nitpick over pacing issues and murky themes like some trumped up duke making fun of a knight with a shaving bowl on his head.
Instead, I will cheer him on, a champion for the dreamer and everyman who feels the blood of legends in is bones.
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