Sunday, May 22, 2016
TWELVE MONKEYS (1995) - ***½
Rated R for violence and language
Running time: 129 min.
Release date: December 29, 1995
Terry Gilliam's Twelve Monkeys depicts a bleak future where mankind has taken to living underground, while animals such as bears and lions roam the surface. The subterranean world appears to made up of spare parts from long dead technology and cobbled together to form an environment that is desperate and disparate simultaneously. It is this vision of a possible future that drives the film, and the film itself asks the question: "If you knew what was going to happen, would you be able to stop it?".
Bruce Willis plays James Cole, a man who, in the future, is a prisoner and locked up in a place that resembles a chicken coop for humans. He is "volunteered" for an assignment that could win him a pardon, if successful. A team of scientists have been impressed with his observational skills and they want to send him into the past to determine what caused a viral outbreak that killed five billion people in 1996. They have some clues at their disposal, including references to a group called "The Army of the 12 Monkeys". However, even in the future time travel is not yet perfect, and Cole ends up in 1990 Baltimore accidentally. He is confused for a mental patient and is paired up with a psychiatrist, Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe). He attempts to convince her of his cause, which of course, ends up with his admittance to a mental institution. While there, he meets Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt), who shows him the ropes and rattles off about the human condition. Jeffrey is the son of a renowned virologist (Christopher Plummer), and Jeffrey may or may not be the man behind the outbreak, although Cole has no clue about him at this point. Jeffrey helps him try an escape, but Cole is caught. Staff are at a loss when Cole disappears after being restrained to a table.
Cole winds up back to his present, our future. The scientists send him back a second time to try and get it right, this time ending up in 1996; but not before a side trip to World War I. In 1996, he finds Kathryn, kidnaps her and they take a road trip to Philadelphia, the apparent source of the viral outbreak. There is a side story, told in news reports, about a boy trapped in a well. Cole claims to know the outcome of the story and its only later that Kathryn pieces things together that make her think that maybe Cole isn't so crazy after all. Kathryn decides to help Cole in his quest while avoiding police, who seem to think she may be going through some sort of Stockholm Syndrome. Cole finds that he loves breathing the air of this time period; he loves the sun; he loves the music; and he just may love Kathryn. The powers-that-be in his present, our future, have their ways of tracking their volunteers and making sure that they return. This complicates things quite a bit for Cole and Kathryn, whose budding romance is just as doomed as the future, and they seem to sense that.
The future created by Terry Gilliam is seen on two levels: the subterranean world is an excellent collaboration of art direction by William Ladd Skinner and set decoration by Crispian Sallis. It's a crowded, bizarre maze of metal and pipes and wires. The surface world is a cold, savage land where even the skyscrapers have succumbed to the bleakness. This vision of the future is one that stays with you. The screenplay by David and Janet Peoples, based on a short film titled La Jetée, deals with themes like time and insanity; it's intelligent but it could also be confusing at times. The dialogue walked a fine line between brilliant and silly. There are also questions left unanswered in a few areas.
What keeps the film grounded are the performances by the cast. Bruce Willis turns in a surprisingly vulnerable character turn here while simultaneously bringing out his usual strong bravado we're used to seeing from him. Madeleine Stowe was quite convincing as an intelligent woman dragged into a lunatic plot. Brad Pitt steals the show, however. His performance as Jeffrey was manic and twitchy but you could see the wheels turning behind those shifty eyes. His charisma pulls you to the edge of your seat, leaning in closer to hear every word he says. This performance earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor, deservedly so.
What Twelve Monkeys lacks in coherence at times is more than made up for by Gilliam's vision and the outstanding work of his cast. There is madness in Gilliam's work and the cast are up to the task. The final shot of the film is that of a young boy's eyes, staring straight head. He just witnessed the future, and he seems resigned to let it be.