Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote


When Toby (Adam Driver) was in film school, he made a student film in Spain and cast locals to act. Among them was a shoemaker (Jonathan Pryce) who really became Don Quixote in the role, and a girl (Joana Ribeiro) with whom Toby had an innocent fling. Ten years later Toby is in Spain again, filming another iteration of Quixote -- this time for a vodka commercial. He's having an affair with The Boss's (Stellan Skarsgård) wife (Olga Kurylenko), flirting with the script girl whose name he can't remember, and is, on the whole, a careless money-obsessed cynic.

I guess that means it's time for life-restoring adventures!

He happens upon a copy of his old film, discovers that the village he shot in is nearby, goes for a visit to revel in the simpler, more romantic time in his life, and discovers that everything's changed and it's all his fault. For one, the girl, encouraged by his insistence that she could make it big, set off to do so and instead fell into prostitution. And the old shoemaker? He went crazy and never stopped acting like he was Don Quixote. In fact, he really believes he really is Don Quixote de la Mancha -- and when he sees Toby again, he mistakes him for his squire Sancho. Next thing Toby knows, he's off having quixotic adventures with the old man, in the bizarre and fantastic fever-dream style of Terry Gilliam.

I'm no expert on Terry Gilliam's writing/directing style, but this feels like him through and through -- and whether you'll enjoy it probably rides on whether or not you enjoy that specific style. You might enjoy it a little more of you like, say, Adam Driver, who's great, and why wouldn't you like a movie more for his presence? But Gilliam's style is so present and has to be the ultimate deciding factor. If you've seen Brazil, it felt like a modern fantasy version of that to me. There's darkness and comedy, relentless craziness, and brief, valuable moments of sincerity; all tightly packed together. It honestly did feel like experiencing a fever-dream.

Like. Honestly. It's WEIRD.

I enjoy fever dreams because they're completely bonkers logically, but you accept their premises without a second thought. But they also get frustrating easily, and this film lines up there, too. I did watch it twice because my rental was for a week, and so I should say that the second viewing was much more relaxed. I noticed great details embedded in the hectic frames. Still, besides the initial crazed vibe, most of the episodic adventures of the second act give off a persistent ambling feeling -- like all the pointless rabbit trails that prevent you from getting to your dream's goal. Once the third act gets going though, everything focuses again and delivers on all the first act's promises.

And even in that middle section there are great moments, both of the comic and the dramatic variety. The comedy is mostly the natural result of the extravagant and ridiculous situations Toby gets into, but there were a few particular lines or visual gags that felt like real comedy and made me laugh. Everything happens a such a relentless pace, it often verged on losing me completely -- but right before that would happen it always seemed to stop for a quiet moment, just brief enough do I could take a breath and it was off again. It was impressive how it kept up energy, but at the same time runs the risk of losing the less determined viewers along the way.

Yeah, it's crazy. Decidedly crazy. But it's distinctly charming too.

Funny Adam Driver is a blast. He's the straight man to Jonathan Pryce's dramatic lunatic and their developing dynamic is both interesting and amusing. But sincere, romantic Adam Driver is why I'm here. Toby's arc of restoring chivalry to his life is what holds all the wacky adventures together, and Driver sometimes turns on a dime from silly to deep, and then back again. Anyone who's seen the new Star Wars series knows he has talent, but he's seriously wasted on action-heavy blockbusters. This movie is physical and practically the definition of "hijinks ensued" but because of the small scale, it never distracts too much from the characters involved. 

It was great seeing him and Pryce pair up and constantly dominate the screen. And while Driver is fantastic, Pryce absolutely gets lost in the role. I technically knew it was Jonathan Pryce of course, but there was never even a flicker in which I saw him as such. He was this bizarre old man, Don Quixote. And he was the shy and weary shoemaker. I'm sure the appearance and costumes helped his cause, but no matter how you slice it, this is character acting at its finest. Joana Ribeiro as Angelica the girl impresses too, and Stellan Skarsgård and Olga Kurylenko plenty fun, but don't have particularly intricate roles. 

This is the Driver and Pryce show. 

Not a film that will appeal to all. It's crusty and covered in dried mud -- like Toby's face -- but it seems the more I familiarize myself with it, the less the relentless craziness feels abrasive and overwhelming, and the more the sweetness and character moments feel warm; and the more the detailed humor becomes apparent. I guess it's the sort of movie that you have to be willing to invest a little time into. There's a lot to unpack, a lot to love, and a lot that's just overly prominent packaging. A facade that tones down as investment deepens.

Not everyone will be willing to put the time in, and the rewards may vary. But hey, Terry Gilliam was invested for thirty years, bringing this story to life. After all that, the two hours and twelve minutes it takes to experience the result is nothing short of a grand, adventuresome privilege. 


  1. Once again, you deliver a stellar review. ;)

    I don't know if I'd like this, but it's a definite possibility. Sometimes I am 100% here for wacky, genre-blending movies, and sometimes I run from them. I think I'll try this one just to find out which it'll be. (Plus, Driver and Pryce are both really good, so I'd enjoy watching them.)

    1. Thanks Olivia! I think it might be impossible to truly gauge. Honestly I didn't even know what I thought after the first go. But this was my impression after the second, and I've seen it again since, and every time I love it even more! This may be my favorite movie with Adam Driver ever. I say it's worth the risk to check out!