(Universal Pictures) When listing the great directors of our time, it's somehow easy to forget about Terry Gilliam. It's not for any lack of talent, as the moment someone says his name, a true film fan will immediately say, “Of course! Gilliam is a god.” It's more likely because he already has a claim to fame as the only American-born member of the English comedy troupe, Monty Python's Flying Circus.
Monty Python was the Beatles of comedy (George Harrison created Handmade Films for the sole purpose of producing Python's Life of Brian); the body of work produced by the group made an indelible mark on the world and changed the very parameters of what comedy could be. What more could one man ask out of life? Well, Gilliam wasn't content. He saw Python as a stepping stone and, while his already secured place in history may have opened many doors, it was his innate talent and exceptional dedication that made him into a director every bit as visionary as Stanley Kubrick, Ridley Scott, Werner Herzog, David Lynch, or Alfred Hitchcock.
A thing of beauty is a joy forever. In addition to the classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Gilliam gave birth to such wondrous creatures as Time Bandits, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — each perfect in their own way, with his unmistakable tragicomic mania flowing through their veins. In the mid-'90s, he directed Twelve Monkeys, which would be considered a masterpiece if a lesser director had made it; however, considering the quality and distinctiveness of his other work, it may as well just be called “a Terry Gilliam film.”
Twelve Monkeys takes place in two time periods: the “present day” of the 1990s and the near future of 2035, where the world has been devastated by an act of biological terrorism. Only 1% of humanity has survived a deadly plague released in 1996 by a group known as The Army of the Twelve Monkeys. James Cole (Bruce Willis) lives his life in a wire cage, only leaving when he's “volunteered” to go out to the deserted surface of the planet to collect samples for the Scientists.
Cole is haunted by memories of a man he saw gunned down in an airport when he was a child, before the outbreak of the virus. He's soon sent back in time by the Scientists to try to gather information on the event which destroyed the world. There he meets Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) -- a kindhearted psychiatrist -- and Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt) -- a mental patient and anti-consumer idealist.
This is one of Pitt's finest performances. He sheds all vestiges of his pretty-boy veneer in favor of twitching, chattering mania. Stowe is fantastic in her desperate determination to understand Cole's rambling stories of time travel and apocalypse, showing why she is sorely missed as a feature film actor. Willis' wounded stoicism is ideal for Cole's character, who wants to do the right thing but often doubts himself.
The beauty of Twelve Monkeys is in how it plays with dream, memory, and madness. It presents a situation in which it's equally plausible that Cole is insane, as that he's the savior of humanity. It asks questions about the nature of insanity: crazy people often believe they have unique insight into reality — but when the majority of people pursue mindless lives that will eventually result in the death of the species, who is insane and who isn't? Twelve Monkeys feels both unhinged and woefully prophetic. It's unsettling to hear Willis utter the line: “All I see are dead people” four years before The Sixth Sense, and the image of a lion standing on the roof of a building in a snowbound wasteland that was once a human city will stay with you long after the film is over.
In visual style, the film recalls Gilliam's earlier Brazil, in which a totalitarian state resembles a machine cobbled together out of spare parts. It's dirty and inexact, with those in charge seeming as lost as their helpless pawns. You feel for everyone — Cole, Railly, Goines, the Scientists, the staff of the mental hospital — because everyone's just doing their best to keep a minute amount of control on the roiling madness that churns around them. No one's a villain; everyone's a patsy in fate's cruel game.
In terms of tone, the film owes a lot to Hitchcock's Vertigo, which is acknowledged explicitly in several scenes and musical cues. The dreamlike feeling of human insignificance in the pattern of time is the same. Speaking of music, Paul Buckmaster's superb score makes use of the accordion's unrivaled ability to sound both lyrical and deranged while simultaneously paying tribute to the French film La Jetée, which inspired the screenplay.
Recent Oscar-winner Christopher Plummer is both genteel and ridiculous as a famous virologist whose well-intentioned work may have led to the world-ending catastrophe. Twelve Monkeys is like a self-contained hurricane — a snake biting its own tail — but its implications hit far too close to home. If the human race ever seems like a terrifying machine set to self-destruct, then this film will strike you as a mad, heartbreaking opera of confusion. It will also jog your memory in case you had forgotten that Terry Gilliam is a filmmaking genius.
For Fans Of: Vertigo, Primer, Brazil, City of Lost Children
Why We Like It: Bruce Willis, intricately constructed puzzle, Brad Pitt, compelling performances, brilliant insanity, Madeleine Stowe