The Man Who Killed Don Quixote: Welcome to Spain, by David Bax
Though he started off his directing career with PG-rated, ostensibly kid-friendly movies like Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Time Bandits, mean-spiritedness has always defined Terry Gilliam’s work. His latest, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, finally making its way to theaters after many very long, very public struggles, continues the trend. The main character, Toby (Adam Driver), a film director with the same initials as Gilliam, is a self-involved asshole who reluctantly finds himself partnered up with Javier (Jonathan Pryce), an addlepated cobbler who believes he is Cervantes’ Don Quixote. It doesn’t stop there; almost every character is a misanthrope, an idiot or both and they all serve as stand-ins for Gilliam in one way or another. But with the director’s bitter sense of humor—he wasn’t one of the Pythons for nothing—and astute comedic performances from his two leads, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is a work of sour but pungent talent and perhaps Gilliam’s best in decades.
Toby makes his living—a very good one—directing massive commercials. When we first meet him (after an unnecessary preamble of text referring to Gilliam’s long struggle to bring this film into existence), he’s in rural Spain with his team of sycophants, making one such advertisement for God knows what product at the behest of a shady businessman client (Stellan Skarsgård) and his ferociously bored girlfriend, Jacqui (Olga Kurylenko). The campaign is based around the legend of Don Quixote and the location happens to be near the small town where Toby, a decade prior, made a graduate thesis film that was also an adaptation of the 17th century novel. During a production slowdown (caused by his own exacting obduracy), Toby decides to go visit the locals who participated in his earlier film and finds that, while his life has been on a constant upswing for the past ten years, the effect he had on the town has dragged it in the other direction.
The Man Who Killed Don Quixote seems constantly to reference Gilliam himself but one of the best in-jokes is that his trademark fisheye lens is only used for Toby’s amateurish film-within-the-film. Still, Gilliam’s visual mastery and that of his longtime collaborator, cinematographer Nicola Pecorini, is still on display. The production design (by Benjamín Fernández) wows as usual but at other times, like when Toby slides headfirst down an underground embankment amidst a cascade of shimmering, bouncing gold doubloons, the beautifully kinetic imagery dazzles on its own. Meanwhile, some cheap-looking CGI in the early section reminds us that Gilliam is no longer making movies for major Hollywood studios but he creates more impactful moments with simple double exposures anyway.
Gilliam has never needed fancy special effects to create his twist on magical realism. A running joke here, though, is that situations that often seem fantastical at the start are revealed to be reality at face value, starting with the very first shots, when a battle between a demented knight and a massive windmill turns out to be a take of Toby’s commercial using forced perspective to make model buildings seem towering. Still, there are some committed bits of cheeky make-believe, like Toby physically knocking his own subtitled dialogue off the screen, leaving us to wonder for the rest of the film what language anyone is actually supposed to be speaking.
Mostly, it’s English, of course, but mixed in with the healthy amount of Spanish is a little bit of Arabic. The conceit of Cervantes’ original novel was that it was based on translated Arabic texts. Gilliam grasps onto that detail and spins it into a comment on how the Arab world of beauty and wisdom has come to be viewed by the West today. Quixote’s respect for the culture makes this backwards, dirty old man come across as a progressive in comparison to Toby’s yes-men, who assume every hijab is hiding a bomb. Gilliam includes some less subtle topical commentary on other subjects, like when Skarsgård compares an erratic Russian gangster (Jordi Mollà) to a “toddler on a sugar rush” or “fucking Trump.”
Most of Gilliam’s harshest condemnations, though, are reserved for himself. He is both Quixote, the pathetic romantic, and Toby, the sellout who exploited, commodified and killed him. He flatters himself somewhat by turning Toby into Quixote’s Sancho Panza, an aesthete whom everyone sees as an ignorant peasant. Even there, though, his version of the character is essentially useless. That’s exactly how Toby has come to see his work, especially once he realizes how the production of his career-making film decimated lives, like that of Angelica (Joana Ribeiro). Ten years prior, she was a teenage girl he cast as Don Quixote’s vision and she has, ever since, seen hard times from which Toby is foolhardy enough to think he can rescue her. He hasn’t learned the lessons of his own inspiration; the word quixotic came from somewhere, didn’t it? But, much like Robert Zemeckis’ recent Welcome to Marwen, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is, essentially, about the ethics of directing movies, of imposing your will on others for the sake of art. Yet it’s also a reminder that the art in question can be a wonder to experience and that when people say a director has lost their touch just because their movies stopped making money, we shouldn’t listen.