Skip to main content

Does he have the squirrels in the attic?

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
(2018)

(SPOILERS) Well, at least he didn’t starve a horse to death this time. It took Terry Gilliam almost twenty years to remount The Man Who Killed Don Quixote following its initial disintegration, in which time original player Johnny Depp’s movie star career exploded then imploded, and original Quixote Jean Rochefort passed away (as a horse lover, Rochefort was understandably most upset about the equine; still, he gets an “in memory of”, along with intended replacement John Hurt). Gilliam managed to make four movies in between, none of which had anything approaching the kind of raves of his early efforts (several were outright slated) and his career seemed ever cooler and pet projects less attractive to financiers. Fortunately, Amazon finally came knocking. And then, less fortunately, they exited (while the budget fell to half that of the original, without factoring in inflation). The film still isn’t officially released in Britain, thanks to the rights tribulations surrounding the involvement of one-time producer Paul Branco, but where there would once have been excitement about whatever Terry had in store, there’s now a general sense that it simply isn’t worth the wait. Somewhere during those rewrites and shifting casts, Gilliam let his film escape him. Or maybe The Man Who Killed Don Quixote was never entirely there in the first place.

I’m a Gilliam apologist (although maybe not regarding the poor horse), and would count The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, in particular (with which this bears some similarities), as one of my all-time favourite films (if not theall-time favourite), but I’m hard pressed to find more than moderate pleasures in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. Like everything post The Brothers Grimm (in particular Tideland and The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) it’s prone to indulgence. Not in the glorious Gilliam sense of unfettered imagination, but rather in that it’s in desperate need of an editor who can set him straight (Lesley Walker, one of the two credited here, has been working with him as far back as The Fisher King, so perhaps indulges his worst instincts). The picture sprawls in ungainly fashion, eschewing clear narrative and character direction and as a consequence comes across as one long digression.

The reworked premise whereby protagonist Toby (Adam Driver) is now in advertising (rather than the original marketing executive), directing a commercial featuring Don Quixote in echo of a piece he made ten years earlier (“I made it a long time ago. It was my graduation film. It won awards”) is instructive in that it’s needless involved and unwieldy, giving rise to haphazard flashbacks that lack effective transitions or differentiations even before the film has properly started. There’s an intentionally autobiographical hue to this, which incorporates Toby having to face up to the ramifications of past decisions involving the student project; when he and Tony Grisoni revised the script, Gilliam outlined that “... the effect it had on many people wasn’t very nice. Some people go mad, some people turn to drink, some people become whores”. Unfortunately, this element never feels very serviceable; shoemaker Javier (Jonathan Pryce) was picked to pay Quixote but lost his mind, while in an unwisely Woody Allen-esque reflection of a director’s attraction to a (then) fifteen-year-old, Angelica (Joana Ribeiro) has left her small village and become a “whore” (model and escort).

Toby hooks up with Javier/Quixote, whose flights of fantasy recall and invoke both Brazil and The Fisher King in their melding of reality with subjectivity, taking in the inevitable tilting at windmills, and soon “Sancho” is beginning to show indications of the same bug (a village that retreats to the seventeenth century, a stash of gold coins revealed as washers; these are nice touches, but ultimately rather fruitless in a picture pitched at one exaggerated level – and when I say exaggerated, I mean in a scatty, disorganised way, rather than the controlled, aspirational lunacy of his early films). Simultaneously, he is trying to extract Angelica from her service to Jordi Molla’s oligarch Miiskin (whom Toby’s boss, Stellan Skarsgard is attempting to do a deal with).

The picture is, relatively, more focussed once Toby and Javier arrive at Miiskin’s castle, and Gilliam is at his most effective when foregrounding the collaboration between fantasy and reality, with the props and mechanics of Quixote’s performance in the court and the illusion of Angelica being burnt alive (again, this echoes Baron Munchausen’s stage show). The problem is, when you throw in self-conscious exchanges like “Try to keep up with the plot”: “There’s a plot?”, you’re inviting agreement rather than applause for modest wit. There’s a sense that Gilliam can’t really see that story any more, in any kind of linear fashion.

Worse, his characters fail to come alive, and you certainly don’t care for them. Driver is good, but he’s too bashed and buffeted by the Gilliam free-for-all to make anything significant from the Toby role. Quixote/Javier isn’t a character, merely a cypher, so there’s no opportunity to feel anything for him or about him, up to and including his titular death scene (compare and contrast with Baron Munchausen, larger than life but given to fits of melancholy and despair). Olga Kurylenko is clearly enjoying the opportunity to dig in to the temptress stereotype (as Skarsgard’s wife) but Ribeiro’s muse is entirely forgettable (despite “becoming” Panza at the end).

Ah yes. The end works on paper as a neat loop/passing on of the Quixote legacy, but fails to translate on screen. It simply has no impact. Comparisons to Gilliam’s other work are thus inevitable, but only negatives tend to come to mind. Don Quixote smacks of the unstructured, aimless fantasy of Tideland in tandem with Brazil’s retreat into a comforting world of make believe. That film called a harsh full stop on such ventures, of course, whereas Munchausen concluded in triumph; Don Quixote offers neither. Toby assuming the mantle here is more of a shrug, but then the entire film is something of a shrug.

This was Gilliam’s first film shot on digital, and it looks it for the most part. While Nicola Peroni has done good work with the director, I can’t help think that sticking to one cinematographer for too long can breed lethargy of vision. It’s undoubtedly happened to Spielberg, and while Peroni did great work on his first couple of collaborations with Gilliam, his last few have definitely been less remarkable. You also feel the lack of budget, that the limitation has both constrained its director and caused him to become more liberal with the elements he cancontrol, namely running time. But I’m doubtful, given all the money in the world, he’d have made Don Quixote more coherent. It has the same kind of ramshackle, intermittent energy as Parnassus (a film I really like) but endeavours to try the patience with it, in the wilfully distracted manner of Tideland.

One might hope this would be a palate cleanser for Gilliam, finally exorcising himself of the spectre that has haunted him for two decades. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is intermittently effective (I love the irreverent “We don’t need these. We understand each other perfectly” as Toby sweeps the subtitles off the screen, and Toby in a passionate kiss with a goat), but it’s the work of someone trying to summon enthusiasm for material that’s long since burned out, and along the way has second-guessed himself and convinced himself to settle for second best in numerous areas. Sadly, it’s difficult not to conclude that the director’s best days are long behind him, and that at 78 (yeah, a decade younger than Clint, but how many good movies has hemade lately?), he may just keep on recycling old projects – a TV Defective Detective has been mooted – rather than become genuinely inspired and enthused by something again.






Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

People still talk about Pandapocalypse 2002.

Turning Red (2022) (SPOILERS) Those wags at Pixar, eh? Yes, the most – actually, the only – impressive thing about Turning Red is the four-tiered wordplay of its title. Thirteen-year-old Mei (Rosalie Chiang) finds herself turning into a large red panda at emotive moments. She is also, simultaneously, riding the crimson wave for the first time. Further, as a teenager, she characteristically suffers from acute embarrassment (mostly due to the actions of her domineering mother Ming Lee, voiced by Sandra Oh). And finally, of course, Turning Red can be seen diligently spreading communist doctrine left, right and centre. To any political sensibility tuning in to Disney+, basically (so ones with either considerable or zero resistance to woke). Take a guess which of these isn’t getting press in reference to the movie? And by a process of elimination is probably what it it’s really about (you know in the same way most Pixars, as far back as Toy Story and Monsters, Inc . can be given an insi

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

I can’t be the worst. What about that hotdog one?

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) (SPOILERS) It would have been a merciful release, had the title card “ The End ”, flashing on screen a little before the ninety-minute mark, not been a false dawn. True, I would still have been unable to swab the bloody dildoes fight from my mind, but at least Everything Everywhere All at Once would have been short. Indeed, by the actual end I was put in mind of a line spoken by co-star James Wong in one of his most indelible roles: “ Now this really pisses me off to no end ”. Or to put it another way, Everything Everywhere All at Once rubbed me up the wrong which way quite a lot of most of the time.

We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.

Wedlock (1991) (SPOILERS) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.

We could be mauled to death by an interstellar monster!

Star Trek Beyond (2016) (SPOILERS) The odd/even Star Trek failure/success rule seemed to have been cancelled out with the first reboot movie, and then trodden into ground with Into Darkness (which, yes, I quite enjoyed, for all its scandalous deficiencies). Star Trek Beyond gets us back onto more familiar ground, as it’s very identifiably a “lesser” Trek , irrespective of the big bucks and directorial nous thrown at it. This is a Star Trek movie that can happily stand shoulder to shoulder with The Search for Spock and Insurrection , content in the knowledge they make it look good.

He's not in my pyjamas, is he?

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) (SPOILERS) By rights, Paul Mazursky’s swinging, post-flower-power-gen partner-swap movie ought to have aged terribly. So much of the era’s scene-specific fare has, particularly so when attempting to reflect its reverberations with any degree of serious intent. Perhaps it’s because Mazursky and co-writer Larry Tucker (also of The Monkees , Alex in Wonderland and I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! ) maintain a wry distance from their characters’ endeavours, much more on the wavelength of Elliott Gould’s Ted than Robert Culp’s Bob; we know any pretensions towards uninhibited expression can’t end well, but we also know Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice have to learn the hard way.

I think World War II was my favourite war.

Small Soldiers (1998) An off-peak Joe Dante movie is still one chock-a-block full of satirical nuggets and comic inspiration, far beyond the facility of most filmmakers. Small Soldiers finds him back after a six-year big screen absence, taking delirious swipes at the veneration of the military, war movies, the toy industry, conglomerates and privatised defence forces. Dante’s take is so gleefully skewed, he even has big business win! The only problem with the picture (aside from an indistinct lead, surprising from a director with a strong track record for casting juveniles) is that this is all very familiar. Dante acknowledged Small Soldiers was basically a riff on Gremlins , and it is. Something innocuous and playful turns mad, bad and dangerous. On one level it has something in common with Gremlins 2: The New Batch , in that the asides carry the picture. But Gremlins 2 was all about the asides, happy to wander off in any direction that suited it oblivious to whet

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

So, you’re telling me that NASA is going to kill the President of the United States with an earthquake?

Conspiracy Theory (1997) (SPOILERS) Mel Gibson’s official rehabilitation occurred with the announcement of 2016’s Oscar nominations, when Hacksaw Ridge garnered six nods, including Mel as director. Obviously, many refuse to be persuaded that there’s any legitimate atonement for the things someone says. They probably weren’t even convinced by Mel’s appearance in Daddy’s Home 2 , an act of abject obeisance if ever there was one. In other circles, though, Gibbo, or Mad Mel, is venerated as a saviour unsullied by the depraved Hollywood machine, one of the brave few who would not allow them to take his freedom. Or at least, his values. Of course, that’s frequently based on alleged comments he made, ones it’s highly likely he didn’t. But doesn’t that rather appeal to the premise of his 23-year-old star vehicle Conspiracy Theory , in which “ A good conspiracy theory is an unproveable one ”?