How do you kill Don Quixote? Many people may suspect Terry Gilliam's 2019 film, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, is about the death of the human imagination at the hands of a cynical film industry. But this mad, funny, and brilliant film is more complex than that. The wit and intelligence, the unbridled creativity at play in this movie are tremendously refreshing.
Gilliam is obviously a champion of the human imagination but he's always portrayed it as a double edged sword. Maybe more than two edges, even. Brazil may be a heartbreaking tribute to one man's imagination granting him a meagre escape from an Orwellian society but it also has scenes like the one where the protagonist, caught up in the romance of a car chase, accidentally causes several innocent men to be burned alive. But while the star of that film, Jonathan Pryce, also plays Quixote in the new movie, the best point of comparison might actually be Gilliam's adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas with a healthy dose of Fellini's 8 1/2 thrown in.
The kind of relentless shifting between reality and fantasy which may or may not actually be occurring more resembles Fear and Loathing than any of Gilliam's other films only, with the absence of drugs, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote relies more on the fundamental dream state of film to explain, or simply establish, what occurs. There's either no explanation for Toby (Adam Driver) suddenly finding himself amongst a group of Moors being rounded up during the Spanish Inquisition, or it's a dream he's suddenly had that connects the past with the present. We're never explicitly told so we never know, which is perfectly fine, especially since Toby never knows either.
He plays a film director whose pursuit of commercial success has taken him from being a romantic student filmmaker to being a fast talking, shallow director of a vodka commercial shot in Spain. The subject of the commercial happens to be Don Quixote and he's astonished to come across a gypsy street vendor (Oscar Jaenada) selling a bootlegged copy of Toby's long lost student film, also about Quixote. He returns to the small town where he shot the film and discovers it's had a lasting effect on two of the film's stars; a pretty girl named Angelica (Joana Ribeiro) and an old man named Javier (Pryce). The former's dreams of stardom eventually led her to become an escort and finally the kept woman of a Russian tycoon and the latter now believes he really is Don Quixote.
I'm of the opinion that Cervantes' novel is more of a parody of chivalry than the wistful homage to it some take it to be. By giving the qualities of a chivalrous knight to a madman, Cervantes brilliantly created a safe pretext through which to show how destructive it can be to hold to an abstract ideal in a practical world. But life without dreams is an ugly thing. Both Angelica's and Javier's fates can be interpreted differently--she insists she's happier as a high class prostitute than doing laundry for a living, and Javier would certainly rather be taken as the real Don Quixote than a former cobbler who's lost his mind.
Toby's surrounded by people who seem to casually accept the unreality of the absurd world around them even as they vigorously indulge in its pleasures--particularly his boss (Stellan Skarsgard) and his boss' wife (Olga Kurylenko), whose reckless BDSM play is the source of several amusing moments. By the default of plot language, we'd take Angelica as the "good girl" and the boss' wife as the "bad girl" but at least one moment asks us to wonder just how different they are. The story begins with Toby feebly searching for his soul in the middle of a decadent and crass world but instead discovers the perfectly sensible connexion between the boy he was and the man he's become--when Quixote decides Toby's Sancho Panza, at first Toby compulsively tries to remind the old man the lines he's spouting are from a script Toby wrote; Toby's compulsively outside the artwork, but the experience gradually brings him back to the point where he was inside it. Is it a good thing? The film refuses to give an easy answer which, of course, makes faith in the dream all the more beautiful as the churning, endless questioning compels your attention.
Twitter Sonnet #1224
A cold container kept the noodles dry.
One freezer's like another frozen home.
A burning sun returned the thoughts to try.
Beneath the ice were etchings cross the dome.
A steam at length emerged between the rocks.
A magma flow has cooked a tender cake.
Upon the stream there floats a pair of socks.
Along the bank a thousand eyes awake.
Decision steel conducts the Force along.
A pallid hand compels the Sith to sup.
The em'rald route the crew'd trade for song.
But bolts and nuts could surely fill a cup.
A giant's arms were ever turning round.
Recorded image tricked a homeless sound.