There may be no filmmaker as relentlessly uncompromising as Terry Gilliam. Perhaps being the only American member of Monty Python made him feel that he could succeed anywhere. Perhaps the immense financial success of his second non-Python feature Time Bandits insured him against future problems. Or perhaps he’s making so much money off of Python residuals that he never needs to worry about his films failing. Whatever the reason, by the time he directed 12 Monkeys in 1995 Gilliam could do whatever he wanted, in part because studios knew he would fight them tooth and nail if he could not. The movie is all the better for his unique vision.
Bruce Willis plays a convict in a post-apocalyptic future where the remaining humans have to hide underground from a plague that originated in 1997. The scientists who run his society send him back in time; he can’t stop the plague from happening, but he can try to gain information on the plague so that future scientists can develop a cure and allow mankind to return to the surface. Time travel is inexact, however. He isn’t sent back to the correct year and the process seems to scramble his brain, so that he surely seems a crazy person when he encounters a psychologist played by Madeleine Stowe.
Much like Gilliam’s last film before this one, the fantastic The Fisher King, insanity infects every aspect of this film. The bizarre music, the excessive use of Dutch angles and the dolly-zoom*, and the seemingly random ways that the story circles back on itself create a feeling of volatile reality. It’s as though the world is about to drop out from under the characters’ feet at any time (and for Willis, it literally does with every instance of time travel).
A good part of the credit for film’s mood also goes to the screenplay by David Webb Peoples (Blade Runner, Unforgiven) and his wife Janet. Assigned the difficult task of adapting the French short film La Jetee, Peoples & Peoples created all of the various ways that the script crazily loops back onto itself. They also created a masterfully subtle transition where Willis almost incepts Stowe: she becomes the manic one, her entire worldview turned on its head by the possibility that time travel is real.
The aforementioned fact that Willis cannot stop the plague from happening is key to the script’s success. Movies like Terminator 2 are tons of fun, for certain, but the logic of their time travel fails completely if you think about it for too long: if time travelers can go back and change their futures so radically that there should be no reason for them to go back in time in the first place, how did the movie ever happen? 12 Monkeys is more like the first Terminator film: the fact that a character traveled back in time is exactly what made possible the future from which they arrived, closing the film’s plot in a perfect loop.
Thus, my favorite thing about Willis’ performance is the way that he looks at everyone in 1996 as dead, because they are dead – he has no power to save them from the inevitable plague. When he kills two men and Stowe protests, Willis tells her, “all I see are dead people,” the line itself is chilling, even though it’s hard not to laugh at the connection to a later Willis film, The Sixth Sense.
During those scenes Stowe has a thankless sort of wet-blanket role, constantly insisting that Willis’ worldview cannot be possible when we as the audience already know that it is. However, she deserves a lot of credit for putting a lot of joy into the second half of the movie. Stowe has had a long and successful career of being typecast as a cold and remote woman, but to see her finally respond to Willis with wild happiness brightens up a movie that could turn relentlessly dark in its final act.
According to lore, Gilliam presented Willis with a list of “typical Bruce Willis things” and ordered Willis not to do any of them while acting in this film. The result is a Willis that no fan of Armageddon would recognize or even like, but it may well be the best acting of his career. He may be a Cassandra, pleading about future events to a world which thinks him mad, or he might actually be insane as repeated trips into the past warp his mind. The script takes no position either way as to how Willis should play it, and he leaves it ambiguous as well.
Brad Pitt’s wild performance as a mental patient who has some sort of connection to the plague got a lot of praise from critics at the time, and this is a mystery to me. I wouldn’t say that he is bad, because the role is so big, with exaggerated twitches and lots of shouting, that it seems impossible to judge whether it’s “good” or not. Such is the problem with having a lot of mental illness in your movie: it gives the actors too much motivation to go, well, crazy.
The grungy steampunk future seems to be a callback to another great Gilliam movie, Brazil. Like the characters in that movie, Willis and Stowe are playing people who are just cogs in a machine. The difference is that the machine is not a government or even a society, but fate itself. This film ends with a plot development that some might call a twist, but audiences are likely to see it coming a mile away, and that is by design. Time – or if one is a stickler for the physics of these things, spacetime – is a force of nature that all are powerless against, and that makes the ending of 12 Monkeys especially bittersweet.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*The shot invented by Albert Hitchcock in which the camera moves (or “dollies”) in one direction while the lens zooms in the opposite direction. Here is the most famous dolly-zoom of all time, by Steven Spielberg in Jaws. 12 Monkeys is weird in that its dolly-zooms are throwaway shots, just a few second long, and the dolly-zoom effect is just to disorient the audience.