Film Review: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2018)

Written by Jasper Harris

Author’s note: I appreciate that a film from 2018 should not be considered “new”, but it only recently became available in Britain, so for the purpose of this review, I am counting it as such.

Here’s what I hate about movie reviews. 

When I say three stars, what does that make you think? Does it say, “Hey, this film was entirely average” or “This film was masterful, with a lot of messy parts to it” or any number of other interpretations? The number means nothing about the film, and so many inventive films get lumped in with ones that are in no way deserving to be held in the same esteem. 

So, for a minute, let’s talk about average movies. Because you know them, you’ve seen too many of them, and frankly, they inhabit perfectly the problem that is lazy filmmaking. They’re just about ok enough to be worth watching to the end, and you might even recommend them to someone. Hell, you might even enjoy it. But in terms of utilising the medium of film as a storyteller’s medium, they don’t even entertain the idea of being anything but the status quo.

And this is where I hit a problem. I would rather sit through something obviously awful (having just finished 2014’s masterpiece made-for-TV movie, Pants on Fire, I can attest, so-bad-they’re-good films remain the greatest way to enjoy cinema) than something that was made by a cast and crew that sleep-walked through its entire production. 

“So, what is the key ingredient?”, I hear all four of my readers cry.

The answer, from what I have been able to gather from my time watching films, seems to be genuinely original ideas. They appear to be the main separator between an average film and one that is masterful or might be considered a ‘great movie’, whatever that means. I know, this might be trivialising a large topic of discussion for some, but typically, in an average film, there are very few new ideas, or in the worst cases, none. And any they do have tend to be milked for as much mileage as possible. There’s a key idea, and that key idea is repeated and repeated and ran into the ground until finally, we reach the ninety-minute mark, and the movie can finally wrap itself up. 

On the other hand, truly great films (with a few exceptions) tend to be fonts of imagination. Whether it’s through character, or world-building, or in the smaller details, everything that appears on screen will have a thought behind it. And the effect that that level of dedication and care has cannot be understated. It tells the audience “Yes, we thought about this one. We thought long and hard, and we wanted it to be as good as it could possibly be.” 

However, it’s an unfortunate truth that being a font of imagination does not automatically cause your film to be great, or even a good one. And Terry Gilliam’s new, and much-anticipated film falls into this pit trap. Which, before I tell you why, is an incredible shame. Gilliam is an auteur in the greatest sense of the word. His work on films like Brazil and Twelve Monkeys, and even his time with Monthy Python, has always been filled to the brim with genuine creativity, and a joy for the art of filmmaking. 

And this is why I struggle in rating ‘The Man Who Killed Don Quixote’. Because almost every beat has a new and inventive way to approach it, almost every scene is filled with something that makes me want to applaud the film. In this way, it feels like a return to the “glory days” of Gilliam. The key difference between then and now was that then there was a balance to his creativity that was, you know, narrative cohesion. 

Because while having an exceptionally large arsenal of ideas is a point in the film’s favour, this doesn’t make up for the fact that it’s properly messy. Tonally, it’s all over the place, the scene’s feel clunkily placed together, and the final act made approximately zero sense. 

Beyond this, the film shows it’s age in a way I wouldn’t have thought possible. Having been in the planning for over twenty-five years, the film feels like it’s at least twenty-five years old. Both the way it’s shot and the way it’s directed make for an odd watching experience: we are seeing ideas that haven’t been changed for a quarter of a century – most of which are either too grotesque or too antiquated for a modern audience.

The film really comes together around Adam Driver (as the lead character, Toby) and Jonathon Pryce (as the titular Don Quixote, a character more fascinating and absurd than we deserve) as we follow them through the Spanish desert on increasingly surreal experiences, watching as nothing makes sense to anyone but Quixote, a man who sees things no one else does and imagines windmills to be giants. In that way, the film succeeds. We, like, Toby, have no clue what is going on most of the time. 

I won’t spoil the film for you, as I often try not to, because I do urge you to watch it, even if you haven’t seen any Gilliam before. He really does “put on a show” as it were. You won’t regret it, even if you won’t necessarily enjoy it. 

Sadly, this probably isn’t the long-awaited return to the days of Gilliam at the height of his filmmaking ability, but it seems like, at least, a small stepping stone in the right direction. 

About the author

Jasper Harris

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