“Oh, wouldn’t it be great if I was crazy? Then the world would be okay.” This is a question the lead character, James Cole, asks himself during Terry Gilliam‘s brilliant 1995 film 12 Monkeys. The film is written by David Peoples & Janet Peoples, however Chris Marker also receives a writing credit because it was his 1962 French short film, La Jetée, that this screenplay was inspired by. I have yet to see La Jetée, so I have no basis for comparison between the two films, but from what I’ve read, the basic plot points are the same.
Cole, our hero, is played by Bruce Willis and is living in a post-apocalyptic future where people are “volunteered” to go up to earth, away from their underground shelter and investigate the world, which is now run by animals. Cole, eventually is selected by the people that now oversee “the survivors” as someone that can help them in a more long term solution, maybe even find a cure for the virus that killed the humans in the years 1996-1997.
He is sent, via time-travel, to a psychiatric ward of a hospital in 1990. He meets mentally ill people, one of which is Jeffrey Goines, played terrifically by Brad Pitt. Pitt was nominated for an Academy Away for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for this portrayal, however he lost to Kevin Spacey for his role in The Usual Suspects. Don’t feel too bad for Pitt, he did pick up a Golden Globe win for this role and it was very well deserved. Goines is all over the place when he speaks, yet he is also very aware of what is going on. He picks up on things Cole says and remembers them, repeats them, and Pitt made me burst into laughter with his constant demand that no one sit in his favorite chair, even during an epic struggle to break Cole out of the hospital.
It’s at this hospital that he also meets Dr. Kathryn Railly, played by Madeleine Stowe. She tells him that she is someone he can talk openly to because she is a psychiatrist. He suddenly has a feeling that he’s seen her before. He then goes on about how he is from the future and the world, as we know it, is going to end. He tries to tell about the famous “12 Monkeys” and that, while he’s not allowed to stop it from happening, he’s on a mission to find information to possibly find a cure for the future. Of course, the other doctors in the hospital assume he’s mentally ill, but there’s some kind of connection between Cole and Dr. Railly.
There were many great things to love about 12 Monkeys. I loved it’s gritty style when Cole first goes above ground and sees the world as it is post-apocalypse. I loved the interrogations by the scientists every time he got back from a mission. He was held hostage and they were in his face, analyzing him. None of it was glossy, clean, or futuristic feeling. Yes, the time travel was futuristic, I suppose, but even that wasn’t clean and it seemed almost like he was a test patient.
I loved the way Gilliam played with the viewer’s head. The most obvious way this was done was by staying with Cole, Willis’ character, almost the entire movie. If you notice, we rarely left him and his point of view throughout the movie. Therefore, we don’t get a clear view of the entire scope of the world, you get his perspective, you get people’s voices in his head or maybe they are people talking to him in the bathroom stall? That’s why the quote that I opened this review with is a perfect analysis for this movie. I won’t dare give away the ending here, but we are left with a sense of wonderment, realization, and fear when the final credits role.
This is a movie that expects it’s audience to keep up, and those are my favorite kind of movies. I love movies that at their heart, their deep core, have an idea. Something interesting that they want to express. Even if they turn out sub-par, like last year’s Contagion or The Adjustment Bureau, at least they tried something interesting. 12 Monkeys doesn’t dumb it down, it may take some people multiple viewings to get everything this movie is trying to say. It is fantastically shot, with great set design, fantastically written, and fantastically acted thanks especially to Brad Pitt.
12 Monkeys is currently Instantly Streaming on Netflix