I love Terry Gilliam, I truly do. But so much of his work suffers from too much creativity (Brazil, Baron Munchausen, etc.) that his brilliant vision often turns into clutter and noise. He needs a steadier hand to guide him at times, and we’ve found it with David Peoples’s (Blade Runner, Unforgiven) marvelous screenplay.
12 Monkeys is Gilliam’s most disciplined, moving and thought-provoking film precisely because we are able to relate to its ideas surrounding insanity, paranoia and doomsday.
Bruce Willis is a convict in a dystopian future where nearly all of mankind has been killed off by a super-virus unleashed in 1996. The survivors live underground like rats and the animals (immune to the virus) are the only creatures on the surface. He is recruited to go back in time to retrieve a sample virus so that the scientist plutocrats who rule his society can develop a vaccine.
OK, typical plot developments occur, right? “Bruce, back in the 1990s, is considered a crack-pot and a looney and he’s locked up. He’s got to get out and complete his mission and there’s one person who can help: Dr. Kathryn Reilly, psychiatrist and do-gooder.”
But wait, there’s more. So much more, including Brad Pitt (in my favorite performance as the maniac who may be behind the virus); complex time travel that effectively distorts YOUR idea of what’s real; man’s corruption of the earth; and a vision of humanity’s collective madness that only Gilliam could capture.
Because at the center is Bruce Willis as James Cole. A violent person hardened by life, but who can also listen to a song on the radio with the relish of a child. Madeleine Stowe is at her most luminous as Dr. Reilly, and the love that develops between them is neither unnecessary or contrived. After all, love is their last grasp at what what it means to be real. Everything else is just a collection of artifacts.