“Remembering’s dangerous. I find the past such a worrying, anxious place. “The Past Tense,” I suppose you’d call it. Memory’s so treacherous. One moment you’re lost in a carnival of delights, with poignant childhood aromas, the flashing neon of puberty, all that sentimental candy-floss… the next, it leads you somewhere you don’t want to go. Somewhere dark and cold, filled with the damp ambiguous shapes of things you’d hoped were forgotten. Memories can be vile, repulsive little brutes. Like children I suppose. But can we live without them? Memories are what our reason is based upon. If we can’t face them, we deny reason itself! Although, why not? We aren’t contractually tied down to rationality! There is no sanity clause! So when you find yourself locked onto an unpleasant train of thought, heading for the places in your past where the screaming is unbearable, remember there’s always madness. Madness is the emergency exit… you can just step outside, and close the door on all those dreadful things that happened. You can lock them away… forever.” – The Joker, The Killing Joke.
Cast: Bruce Willis (James Cole), Madeleine Stowe (Kathryn Railly), Brad Pitt (Jeffrey Goines), Christopher Plummer (Dr. Goines), Jon Seda (Jose) etc…
Director: Terry Gilliam
Runtime: 127 minutes
Plot: The year is 2035, 99% of the Earth’s population has been wiped out by a deadly virus set into the atmosphere in 1996 and the remaining survivors live underground. James Cole, a convicted criminal is sent to the past (1990) in order to find out who made and let out the virus in order to save the future.
Twelve Monkeys is a masterpiece, there is no getting around it. It is smart, fantastically shot and wonderfully acted all to an incredible screenplay. What’s hardest about watching and writing about Twelve Monkeys is figuring out anything wrong with the film – you have been warned.
While the film is about time-travel on the surface, it is primarily about relationships, madness and existence. Very similar to Gilliam’s earlier work Brazil then? Yes. Gilliam’s oeuvre should now be well known by any self-respecting film fan or cinéphile, and Twelve Monkeys does not disappoint on this front. While I have not seen Brazil in many years, Twelve Monkeys just seems like the stronger film, I believe this comes with the films easier to follow plot and more arresting visual flair.
Despite the complicated premise, Twelve Monkeys is an easy film to follow, and therefore, love. Don’t worry if you think the film sounds complicated, it really is not – anyone who is put off by the film’s premise would be doing themselves a disservice by not watching the movie, everyone at least needs to give it a go.
However, it would all fall apart if the acting was off, luckily, the acting is superb. Bruce Willis, Brad Pitt and Madeleine Stowe all give career defining performances here. Willis does not play the hard man to any real extent; indeed, his performance is particularly smart and gives the paranoid yet determined James Cole a particularly layered character, this is not the Willis you know and love from Die Hard, but I actually think he is better in Twelve Monkeys than he has been in anything else.
The same goes for Brad Pitt, who plays mental patient Jeffrey Goines with real conviction, his twitching and bursts of mad, joyous violence against the mental asylum staff is great fun to watch. Again, Pitt’s character is paranoid and plays a very large part in the film. Madeleine Stowe has such grace on screen as Dr. Kathryn Railly and has a brilliant chemistry with Willis, a chemistry which is perfectly crafted.
Perfectly crafted is the call of the day in Twelve Monkeys, thanks largely to Terry Gilliam’s impeccable directing and eye for detail. There is so much crammed into each shot, it can become claustrophobic, the mise-en-scéne and cinematography in the film is expertly crafted, with each shot adding strength to the madness and paranoia found in the film brilliantly. Indeed, Twelve Monkeys’ cinematography and mise-en-scéne make the film visually striking, yet busy. Some people may find the style too eclectic, but those who have seen any film by Gilliam will know what they are in for – a trip of a lifetime.
Another aspect of the film that only serves to strengthen the core of madness and nostalgia is the soundtrack. The theme of Twelve Monkeys for example has a very French flair to it (perhaps alluding to the origins of the film in Chris Marker’s La Jetée), for me at least, this song brings out the inherent madness of the film. The theme therefore is intertextual, something very strongly threaded into the narrative of the film.
Indeed, Cole and Railly go to a cinema that is playing Vertigo and the Birds among other Hitchcock classics, not only is this another nod to La Jetée, it also acts as key signifier for memory – the images never change, but our interpretations of them do.
Twelve Monkeys is Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece – it is mad, paranoid and eclectic: everything you could possibly want from a Terry Gilliam production. A fantastic screenplay is bolstered by perfect cinematography, visuals, wonderful acting and a great soundtrack.
If you are not a fan of Terry Gilliam’s work, then this film is not for you; but for everyone else, Twelve Monkeys is so essential it’s unreal.