No film does a better job of conveying the grimy, soulless future that awaits us than Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys. In 2035, a biblical plague has torn through humanity like a reaper’s scythe. The battered tatters of our species cower in underground caves, wallowing and grumbling incoherently. Everyone looks covered in a layer of soot, sweat, and piss. You can practically smell it all coming from the screen. Our eventual doom gets perfectly rendered. This ends up being the best and worst thing about Gilliam’s time-traveling opus: While the consequences of our collective arrogance and ignorance make for an astounding achievement in cinematic aesthetics, they’re also dispiriting to behold. In its darkest moments, 12 Monkeys is a bit of a buzz-kill.
The story opens on James Cole (Bruce Willis), a weary prisoner serving an extended sentence. (Although, in a community of sooty piss-caves, I’m not sure what could possibly constitute a prison.) The higher-ups make him an offer he can’t refuse: Cole can earn a full pardon, if he agrees to board their time machine. He will be transported to 1996, where he will gather information about the pandemic before it happens. Armed with this data, humanity might be able to crawl back into the daylight. This could be a suicide mission, but it beats the hell of a dingy little cell. Cole agrees, and gets sent back in time.
Of course, there’s an immediate snafu. Instead of 1996, Cole lands in 1990, and immediately runs afoul of the law. They chuck him in an asylum, where he babbles wildly about his mission. Dr. Railly (Madeleine Stowe), Cole’s psychiatrist, finds something compelling about his ravings. Her fascination draws suspicion from the ward’s starchy overseers: Could Railly’s attachment to Cole cloud her professional judgment?
Meanwhile, Cole forms a strange bond with one of the other patients. Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt) is a paranoid schizophrenic. Wild-eyed and belligerent, Goines speaks with machine-gun intensity, his words brim with delusions of grandeur and inane conspiracy theories. Amidst this mental flotsam and jetsam, Cole finds something of value: Goines drops a few hints about The Army of the 12 Monkeys, a radical political sect bent on societal anarchy. These activists could play a part in the approaching armageddon, if Cole can locate them in time.
Cole’s mission plays out in an unsettling, non-linear fashion. Gilliam relies on Dutch angles and frenetic editing to imbue his film with a building sense of madness. Cole could be on a quest for humanity, or an unhinged lunatic. Gilliam pushes and pulls us toward both possibilities, making this a relentlessly unpredictable experience. We want to believe Cole, but like Dr. Railly, we’re also filled with doubts.
The film derives much of its unstable energy from the startling performances of Willis and Pitt. Both operate at a creative peak: Willis strips away the smirky machismo that made him an icon. His Cole is spiritually shaky and vulnerable, reacting to 90s civilization with the timid wonder of a frightened child. Willis is completely convincing as a man with bruised humanity. At the same time, Pitt deliberately drives his character off the rails. Goines screams with twitchy passion, as if all his rants were snippets of Shakespearean brilliance. Without the bravery of both actors, 12 Monkeys wouldn’t work nearly as well as it does.
Despite its obvious strengths, something about this film has always left me a little cold. I admire the craft more than I love the story. As a teenager, it struck me as overlong and overcooked, with an over-developed sense of its own cleverness. Now, I watch 12 Monkeys with a sense of bone-deep dread: As a pandemic slams into civilization like a hurricane into beach break, and the armageddon of climate change thunders on the horizon, humanity feels closer to the brink than it ever has. Those filthy caves feel a little too real. Maybe that’s why I still keep this movie at arm’s length: It’s just too incisive for its own good.
131 min. R. On demand.