Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys: A Cult Classic

Director Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys supposes that the insane are not, in fact, babbling nonsense; they very well may be prophets.

In the aftermath of a deadly virus outbreak, humanity is living underground. Caged individuals are “volunteered” at random for unknown experiments, supposedly for the greater good – though no one has yet returned.

James Cole (Bruce Willis), an inmate with a “strong mind,” is volunteered to go back in time and uncover the location of the Army of the 12 Monkeys, an insurgent group blamed for the biological apocalypse. Launched into the past, he winds up in a psych ward alongside Jeffrey Goins (Brad Pitt), the son of a prominent virologist (Christopher Plummer).

After a daring escape and the kidnapping of his psychologist, Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe), Cole sets out to find the Army. If he can recover a sample of the virus and return it to the future, an antidote can be developed. His only obstacle, it seems, is his traveling companion.

Dr. Railly wants, deep down, to believe Cole’s story; she insists that she knows him from somewhere and develops an “uncharacteristic” sentiment towards him. Neither her colleagues nor she understand her own irrational behavior. Stowe handles the descent of a woman of science into the realm of science fiction – and possible insanity – seamlessly. After befriending her kidnapper and questioning her mental health, she cheers with a crooked smile:

“It’s okay! We’re just insane!”

Even the lunatic uttering of Jeffrey Goins carry some plausibility, if not prophecy. Pitt counts out the rhythms in his dialogue on his hands, sending spit-soaked words out of his mouth rapid fire and keeping one eye slightly askew throughout the entire film. He makes Goins both lovable and hated, charming yet detestable.

In explaining to Cole the different habits that can land you in an institution, Goins says that “if you don’t buy things, you’re mentally ill.” With the intrusive prevalence of advertising in our society (which back in ’97 was still on the rise), how can one help but think that the self-sufficient person is crazy for not submitting to the less toilsome life of consumerism?

“You’re here because of the system,” Goins tells him. Everybody’s locked up to prevent a “plague of madness.”

Cole is trying to prevent a biological plague – one that will ravage humanity. To him, it’s fact, but to the so far unharmed humans of 1996, it’s insanity. What plague, then, is the psych ward containing besides that of the truth?

A patient named LJ informs Cole that he knows he’s “mentally divergent,” living – according to his mind – in two places at once, one of which is outside our atmosphere. “When I stop going [to my planet], I will be well,” he tells his new friend.

Willis delivers the driven determination of Cole with true, action-hero stoicism – though he was, at the time of the film’s release, a little-known TV star. Under Gilliam’s direction, some of the subtle, shall we say, silliness in his character unseen in his later roles. He runs the gamut from physically tormented inmate to liberated fugitive, depicting a man relishing – and attempting to save – a world he’d forgotten existed.

While Cole maintains a firm belief in his sanity for most of the film, it’s Dr. Railly – the person who should know the difference between fiction and reality – who is constantly doubting herself. This sends the narrative reeling, leaving the audience disoriented and questioning which fiction is the one they should believe…

As if that isn’t enough, Gilliam’s impeccable production design sheds an edgy, punk-science luminescence onto every surface. The underground world brims with gadgets and wires that distort and mis-shape the body, reflecting the forced alterations to Cole’s mind. Meanwhile, above ground, anarchy reigns supreme in the streets as the wealthy elite are thrust into the mix with the scrounging gutter rats, blending grunge and greed into a strange, surrealistic hybrid.

Even the men and women of science – considered by our own society to be purveyors of fact – seem clownish, almost comedic; hidden in their underground world in the future, they are confined to their antiseptic prison in the present/past. Snide, pretentious, and caricatured, they sometimes appear as though reflected in a fun house mirror.

Overall, Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys twists the factual into the insane, making the viewer question the fabrications before them as though they could possibly be real. It prods at the core of filmic entertainment, the ability of a two-dimensional image to whisk you away to a convincing and believable foreign land.

The air that Cole so graciously heaves carries with it an utter absurdity that makes one hesitant to breathe – lest they catch it too.

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Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys: A Cult Classic