I’ve just about herniated my brain in the days since I saw Twelve Monkeys. Like most other stories that dabble in time travel, it presents a cracking conundrum having to do with the relationship of history to the future and the feasibility of someone traveling back to the past in an attempt to influence the formation of their own present. But unlike those other stories, Twelve Monkeys is the creation of auteur Terry Gilliam, the irrepressible fantasist in charge of the similarly temporal shenanigans of Time Bandits, the urban pain and redemption of The Fisher King, and the lobotomized despair of his great suffocating masterpiece, Brazil.
That means that the machinations of an uncommonly intelligent script, sharply convoluted by the husband-and-wife screenwriting team of David and Janet Peoples, are only part of the sheer expressive power of this very unconventional production. While the story is more carefully constructed than anything Gilliam has previously attempted, the film bears the undeniable hallmarks of one of his peculiar creations, and Twelve Monkeys is unique in its capacity to bring the audience into the same frame of mind as its desperate protagonist. What I’ve realized is that I simply have to see the film again, armed with a knowledge of what’s going to transpire that can help me interpret the events on screen. But time spent deciphering the twists and turns of the plotline, pleasurable though it may be, is strictly secondary to the film’s tremendous emotional resonance.
Here’s what I’m sure of: In the year 1997, some five billion people are wiped out by a deadly virus that renders the surface of the planet uninhabitable, driving the few survivors underground. Some 30 years hence, researchers living underneath Philadelphia have concluded that the virus may have been deliberately introduced by an underground organization calling itself the Army of the 12 Monkeys. Serving a life sentence, convict James Cole (Bruce Willis) is chosen to travel back in time to gather information about that organization in an attempt to pinpoint the origin of the virus, which remains incurable. Cole is forced to “volunteer” for this disorienting assignment mainly because he has an extraordinary memory. That memory has also wrapped itself around a traumatic vision from Cole’s childhood — of a man being gunned down at an airport — that manifests itself as a recurring dream.
Instructed that he can spy on the past, but can’t tamper with fate, Cole is first zapped back to Baltimore circa 1990, where his mission is abruptly complicated by his immediate incarceration in an insame asylum. Bruised, bloody, and nearly incoherent, he fits the part of a raving madman. But while his arrival seems random (he was supposed to land in 1996), the contacts he makes are significant. He meets up with fellow inmate Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), a charismatic nut case who will later be seen to play a pivotal role as the leader of a group of animal rights activists. He also attracts the attention of psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), who could swear that she’s seen Cole somewhere before. (She’s right, but we won’t figure out where until later.)
It’s the interaction of all these characters, as well as the subtle ways that Cole’s dream changes over the course of the movie, that fuel the film’s prevalent uncertainty about cause and effect. At one point Cole is convinced that he himself is responsible for unleashing the virus by suggesting that it might be a keen idea for Goines to hijack a plague from his virologist father. At another, we’re deliberately left unsure whether Cole is responsible for a grisly killing as a key scene unfolds at length. And just when Dr. Railly starts to believe that Cole really is telling the truth about his mission, Cole goes rational on her, insisting — just as she had tried to convince him previously — that his visions of the future are delusionary, and that he really is just a madman in need of her help and guidance.
“La Jetée,” the French film on which Twelve Monkeys is based, is a science fiction story, the most famous work (and the only fiction film) by famed documentarian Chris Marker. The story is told through a succession of still frames with voiceover narration, and in only one brief shot does this motion picture actually move. Gilliam claims in interviews that he has never seen “La Jetée,” but there seems to be a direct reference to its unusual style in a scene where Dr. Railly narrates a slide show about a delusional soldier in World War I. And when Railly and Cole take refuge in a movie theater that happens to be showing Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (an important influence on Marker and “La Jetée”), we’re forced to consider suddenly, almost subconsciously, the many interesting ways that film is this film’s doppelganger. It may be true that it takes a passing acquaintance with film history to truly appreciate Twelve Monkeys; the most overwhelming shot in the film may be the moment when Bernard Herrmann’s love theme from Vertigo wells up unexpectedly on the soundtrack, at exactly the point where Cole and Railly begin their incognito rush toward destiny.
Of course, the actors are instrumental in grabbing the audience’s sympathy for a tale this far removed from everyday life, and Gilliam’s performers really come through for him. Willis’ Cole is a burly, tragic Everyman, a tough guy who looks like he’s too often on the verge of tears. We’ve seen Willis take a pounding in the Die Hard films, but he’s never looked this vulnerable — in one of the film’s early scenes, his face is battered and bloody, with a thick line of drool strung off his lower lip. If our big-budget hero embodies the film’s core humanity, heartthrob Brad Pitt is the off-kilter comic axis. Apparently urged to run with his most hyperactive instincts, Pitt plays Goines as an unpredictable looney who hammers his fast-talking points home with quick, neurotic gestures (his charm is undercut by the possibility that he will be responsible for five billion murders). As Dr. Railly, Madeleine Stowe has comparatively little to do, though her presence is key as the only rational observer in the film. Balancing her reactions between incredulity and blind faith, she’s the center holding the film’s increasingly disparate elements together. In fact, in the last scene of the film, the camera holds on her face, where it seems possible that the entire contradictory spectrum of human feeling is in evidence.
Until now, character has never been Gilliam’s forte, and it’s no surprise that the films from his oeuvre that deal significantly in human transformations — The Fisher King and Twelve Monkeys — are the ones he had no hand in writing. It’s almost as though the presence of a tight script frees him from the more obsessive demands of following his bliss. (Among screenwriter David Peoples’ previous credits are Blade Runner and Unforgiven, two fatalistic films that look long and hard at the static nature of their heroes’ respective identities as probable replicant and once and future gunslinger.) In Gilliam’s films, of course, apparent madness is often the only escape route from brutal, demanding reality. In similar fashion, Twelve Monkeys plays wicked games with notions of madness, perspectives on reality, and its protagonist’s hopes and dreams.
After going over the film in my head time and time again, I’m still not sure how all of the puzzle pieces fit together, and I start to wonder what I really saw in certain scenes. But this is not a liability, because the up-front emotional wallop packed by Twelve Monkeys makes the niggling pleasures of deciphering the script’s layers and loopbacks strictly secondary. A second viewing is definitely in order, just to put my mind at ease. And at the very end of a year when many film fans claimed to relish repeated viewings of The Usual Suspects — a movie that actually negates itself in its final scene — I’m pleased beyond words to find a movie that cares deeply for its characters even as they fall under the wheels of destiny, instead of killing them just to be clever.