Thoughts on Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys
Twelve Monkeys (1995)
Directed by: Terry Gilliam
Written by: David and Janet Peoples
Starring: Bruce Willis, Madeleine Stowe, Brad Pitt, Christopher Plummer, David Morse, Jon Seda
An old favourite of mine, I accidentally caught Twelve Monkeys on TV last night, and enjoyed all 2 hours of it. It is easily my 2nd favorite Gilliam film (behind Brazil), and it includes probably the finest performance any director got out of Bruce Willis, playing an intelligent, but emotionally unstable convict on a larger-than-life mission quite admirably. Madeleine Stowe and Brad Pitt fill out the all-star cast, with the latter going in full over-the-top mode as a mentally insane, monkey-loving outcast son of a respected virologist, played by Christopher Plummer.
Building on a script written by David and Janet Peoples (a rarity with Gilliam to be working on a script written by someone else), the Monty Python legend has rarely been in such outstanding form. His films can often seem inconsistent in tone and full of pacing issues, but Gilliam hits the mark with this one, which is probably his most accessible work. The wonderful cinematography (the deserted, snowy post-apocalyptic Philadelphia in the opening scenes comes to mind), the innovative and subtle production design (I wonder if the film's relatively low budget actually contributed to the claustrophobic, threatening vision of the future), the ominous atmosphere Gilliam creates, whether it is of the dystopian underground future or of the filthy, homeless-ridden downtown Philadelphia are some examples to support the fact that Gilliam went all out on this one. David Lynch's Eraserhead comes to mind as another example of nightmarish representation of this city - I wonder if this was one of Gilliam's inspirations for this film.
What has caught my attention this time around, outside of the wonderful performances (I understand that Pitt chewing up scenery could be annoying to some, but the energy he brought to this role was unmatched afterwards), is the ambiguity that Gilliam brings to the whole storyline. The identity of the "Bob" personality Willis' character has contact with throughout the movie (is the crazy homeless guy yammering about conspiracy theories indeed a spy sent from the future or not?), the fact that we're not sure for most of the film's duration time is all this happening in Willis' head or not (check out the scene where Willis is looking paranoid all over downtown Philly - the grizzly in the store display is either a memory or a perfect vessel for more crazy imagination), the fate of Jose's character (are his scenes on the airport happening "before" his accident in the 1st World War or not?). To go even further, is Stowe's character actually suffering from Stockholm syndrome in the second half of the movie or is Gilliam indeed depicting a doomed romance with a future already written from the start? This exploration of memories, depiction and interpretation of reality and the madness within it, all in the midst of a time paradox storyline (inevitable plot holes aside) is what makes the film work.
Some of this ambiguity can be seen as resolved in the ending Select the black box below with your cursor to view the spoiler text
(where the scientist from the future does return to try to acquire a cure based on the virus specimens, without Willis or Stowe actually being present)
, or in the fact that the photograph indeed shows Willis as being in the 1st World War, but there are still ambiguous clues Gilliam leaves behind, in many of the subtly paranoid shots from Willis' perspective (room with the CAT scan - again, memory of the time machine or a creative stimulation?), backed up by Gilliam's intensely memorable "tilted" camera angles, that makes one wonder about how far Gilliam has decided to fuck with the viewer.
Despite the storyline being dark and disturbing most of the time, there are moments of crazy Gilliam humour all throughout (most of Pitt's scenes or the "crazy dentist" sequence), which makes this one occasion where Gilliam hit the balance just right (Tideland being a completely different story for example).