There are films that sink in almost immediately after the credits roll, others that take some days or months to absorb, and then there are ones like Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, which in my case has taken the years since I was a kid and first saw it to digest the whole experience. Not to say it’s an especially complex or dense story, I mean it’s twisty enough but can more or less be understood with one viewing if you’re keen. There’s just a certain emotional quality to everything, coupled with the hazy unreliability that Gilliam lays over his lead character’s state of mind, an atmosphere like that of a dream you had last night and are trying to remember right as it slips away, an idea which also literally figures into the plot.
Bruce Willis plays against his tough guy image as James Cole, a shellshocked time traveller sent from a dystopian future back to the 90’s to do some cosmic R&D and figure out how a mysterious super virus wiped out almost all of humanity, forcing the rest into subterranean catacombs. Time travel doesn’t seem to be an exact science for these folks though, as they repeatedly send him to the wrong era after which he’s dumped in a mental hospital where, naturally, no one believes who he really is. Or is he even who he thinks he is? Madeleine Stowe is Kathryn Reilly, the psychiatric anthropologist assigned to his case, and Brad Pitt in one demon of a performance plays terminal odd duck Jeffrey Goines, a man whose lunatic ramblings start to sound eerily on point. The mystery of the virus sort of takes a backseat to Willis’s journey through the past, present, future and all times in between, Gilliam loves taking pause to see how he interacts with the world around him and hold scenes for a while until we get a real sense of world building. The moment James hears music for the first time is a showstopper, and the way Willis handles it is not only one of his finest moments as an actor but also a showcase of the craft in itself. Stowe always radiates fierce beauty and compassion in her work, she’s a grounding force of reason and empathy here, while Pitt takes a hyped up Joker approach to his role that takes you off guard while constantly keeping you in the dark about who he really is, the guy says nothing while blurting out everything. Others dart in and out of their story, with appearances from Christopher Plummer, Frank Gorshin, Joseph McKenna, Jon Seda, Harry O’ Toole, LisaGay Hamilton, Christopher Meloni, Bart the Bear and a super creepy David Morse.
I love this film to bits, I think it’s Gilliam’s best work and is definitely my favourite, there is just so much going on both front n’ centre and in the background. It’s a thrilling adventure story, narratives about time travel are always my bag, but it also looks at Willis’s character from a careful psychological perspective. What would time travel do to someone’s state of mind, and how would they react in the long run. Themes of reality versus dreams and imagination are present, and a gnawing sense that it could all be made up. “Maybe you are just a carpet cleaning company and this is all in my head”, James laments through a payphone that transcends space time barriers. Gilliam certainly likes to play with notions of uncertainty and self doubt when it comes to the Sci-Fi aspects, and he isn’t afraid to boldly place in a hauntingly elliptical ending that doesn’t satisfy or resolve, and if anything lingers in our thoughts for a long while, like that elusive dream I mentioned above. Gilliam almost couldn’t get this film made, there were issues with everything from script to special effects to reported studio interference, but I thank the stars that it all worked out in the end, for it is his masterpiece.