By Scott Ross
Terry Gilliam is, to my mind, the most important fantasist currently working in movies, a magician whose finest achievements are the cinematic equivalent of a novel by William Kotzwinkle or E.L. Doctorow: Bracing, intelligent, daring, exhilarating, lyrical. Dangerous. Although his most distinctive projects are, generally, those he initiated, and on whose screenplays he collaborated, he has occasionally been a most effective director-for-hire on other people’s movies. It is a perversity of the filmic gods that two of these, The Fisher King and 12 Monkeys, have been his biggest box-offices successes. Even odder, perhaps, the latter is one of his most artistically triumphant.
The presence of Bruce Willis no doubt had something to do with the movie’s box office appeal, although one cannot imagine the star’s average fans (12-year-old boys of all ages) being best-pleased with the result — nor, for that matter, with the later The Sixth Sense. But it is to the actor’s credit that he periodically takes on chancy work, and in which he tends to give his best performances even if, at times, the movies themselves (In Country, Pulp Fiction) are less interesting (in the case of the former) or fully satisfying (the latter) than he himself is in them. I can just hear his agent’s screams of anguish when he opted for 12 Monkeys… and at a salary considerably less than either were used to receiving.
Inspired, if not precisely based on, Chris Marker’s short film La Jetée, 12 Monkeys (1966) posits a future bleaker and even less hopeful than that of Brazil, but with the possibility of, if not Eden or Utopia (much less Shangri-La) some form of human redemption. That concept, coupled with the question of relative madness, constitute essential Gilliam territory. Here, working from a profoundly logical script by David and Janet Peoples — and on what must, in the perennially bloated Hollywood of today, be considered an almost obscenely tiny budget — Gilliam fashioned a movie experience that is utterly non-pariel.
Thus Willis’ James Cole, the hapless, angry but essentially decent prisoner/experimental monkey of good (if fascistically implemented) intentions, may be read as mad or all too sane, and the ambiguity is intentional. Is the future which uses him — and all but uses him up — an inward manifestation of insanity to which all his outward acts are related, or is he in fact exactly what he claims? It may be putting too fine a point on things that his one-time psychiatrist, Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) explains, in a lecture, “Cassandra in Greek legend, you recall, was condemned to know the future but to be disbelieved when she foretold it. Hence the agony of foreknowledge combined with the impotence to do anything about it.” She, of course, believes Cole is violently, dangerously insane, and her faith, tenuous as it may be, in the new god of psychotherapy, ultimately infects even him. Thus, he begins to question the evidence of his experience even as Kathryn doubts her own and just as she is slowly coming to accept that everything he has claimed just may be the truth. This is perhaps not what Aristotle had in mind when he defined the Classical tragic unities, but in thematic terms (at least those of Gilliam and the Peoples) the juxtaposition is a perfect, ironic narrative “rhyme,” one fully in keeping with the movie’s scrupulously maintained, if seemingly illogical, order.
To say more would be to spoil the experience for those who have not yet shared it, although like any work of complexity and vision, 12 Monkeys yields more layers, engenders more plangent emotion, with each new viewing. Aside from sheer image size, the thing that cannot, sadly, be replicated in the living room (or wherever it is people watch movies these days) is what, in the theater, was an elemental factor in appreciating the whole: The superb sound design which, when called for, located certain dialogue (real, imagined or ambivalent) above, behind, and around the spectator, a device whose uncertain eeriness, as much as the unsettlingly grungy décor of the future, placed us in Cole’s own, confused position.
Cavils with the movie are few, and almost incidental. Over and above their startling appearance, we may wonder, quite properly, why sub-Saharan animals would elect to remain in a climate as inhospitable as that of Philadelphia, especially in the winter. Just for the sake of an unexpected shock? The green-hued homage to Vertigo in the movie theater lobby feels misplaced and unsatisfying except to a Hitchcock aficionado, as neither we nor, presumably, Cole and Railly, have witnessed Kim Novak’s transformation in that movie. (They leave the revival house theatre too early in the picture to have seen it.) As the biological scientist whose concerns over his schizophrenic son’s uncertain activities prompts him to make precisely the wrong decision at exactly the wrong moment — and, also ironically, to trust the one person he shouldn’t — the usually reliable (and here, otherwise splendid) Christopher Plummer exhibits one of the phoniest Southern accents ever heard in a major movie.
Brad Pitt, cast as the son just prior to his ascendancy to stardom, seemed off-putting and over-broad in 1995; the most beautiful actor in Hollywood as wall-eyed psycho. Curiously, his performance feels exactly right nearly 20 years later. Willis, as is his wont when he believes in a project enough for forego audience-pleasing action and his own starry salary, is superb as Cole, and Stowe is revelatory, making each step of Kathryn’s journey explicable and, ultimately, heartbreaking.
Aside from the performances, and the Peoples’ exhilaratingly literate dialogue and refreshingly adult approach to character, incident and structure, what binds 12 Monkeys, and holds it in memory, is Gilliam’s unique and hauntingly original imagery. All of it, moreover, rigorously applied to, and in service of, the overall effect of the narrative, like Paul Buckmaster’s cunning use of the “Introduccion” to the Suite Punta del Este of Astor Piazzola (and of his own strategically recurrent, and achingly beautiful, violin theme), the striking cinematography of Roger Pratt and the beautifully realized editing of Mike Audlsey. Gilliam’s control over, and use of, these and others of his materials is astonishing, particularly given the movie’s almost ridiculously reduced budget which, in an action franchise picture, would have otherwise merely accounted for its star’s salary.
Arguments have raged for years over the scene that follows the movie’s climax, but if you’ve paid sufficient attention to the preceding sequence, it’s perfectly placed, and pays off magnificently, if not overtly — like the haunting eyes of little Joseph Melito, a child witnessing the culminating event of his own future. Its questionable grammar aside, I have often been perplexed by Horace Walpole’s brief that, “this world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.” There is no one I know or respect who does not possess both perspicacity and empathy. For us life is not one thing or another; at best, it is tragi-comic. Gilliam et al. understand, and honor, that. It’s rare enough to be treated, in these days of appalling over-simplification of everything, to a movie whose makers do not serve everything up like a set of instructions on how to think (although that’s also rare) or how, and what, to feel (far more common.) The seeming anti-climax of 12 Monkeys is a grace note in a world grown increasingly grace-less.
Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross