12 Monkeys

Reviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 09/15/04 23:31:16

"Tough. Complex. Hurts Your Brain. These Are Good Things."
5 stars (Awesome)

Terry Gilliam is one of the most uncompromising 'commercial' directors out there. His films are resolutely dense, unfriendly and absolutely unlike anything else out there. They're also stylish, intelligent and challenging. 'Brazil' was full strength Gilliam, and '12 Monkeys' isn't far behind.

It's easy to see why investors and producers are wary of Gilliam. He doesn't do easy to follow plots. He doesn't like happy endings (Brazil has a blacker-than-black ending and even the 'kids film' Time Bandits ends with our 12 year old hero orphaned when his parents are blown up by a lump of calcified Satan).
And he takes a perverse glee in his casting.

Who else at the time would take Bruce Willis, fresh of the 'Die Hard's' and numerous other frat-boy roles and cast him as a bald, delusional, monosyllabic, mumbling freak from the future. There's no one-liners or 'Yipee-ki-yay' here.

Who else would take pretty Brad Pitt and cast him as a greasy, unkempt psychotic intent on armageddon?

Terry Gilliam that's who. His artistic bravery knows no bounds.

It's 2035 and 99% of the human race has been wiped out by a plague. The few survivors have been forced underground while a new animal kingdom rules the surface. A group of scientists have developed a time machine however and have formulated a plan. All they know about the disease is that it was released by a militant group called the 12 Monkeys. They plan to send a volunteer, Cole (Bruce Willis) back in time to 1996 and find the group and the beginnings of the virus so they can affect its development and halt the plague before it begins. Cole initially ends up in an asylum under the watch of Dr. Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe) and thinks he's found the founder of 12 Monkeys - fellow inmate Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt). Now all he has to do is to escape from the asylum, get word back to the future and save the world - but not in your typical Bruce Willis style. And can we really trust Cole's unhinged mind anyway to tell us what's going on?

It's a set up ripe for a Gilliam flight of fancy and he doesn't disappoint as his fertile imagination lets rip here. '12 Monkeys' looks like a younger brother of 'Brazil' with its nightmarish vision of the future. It's all copper tubings, dirty machinery and grubby polythene sheets covering everything. It's a delirious, grim view of hell on earth and makes you wonder if the survivors were the lucky ones after all. But when Cole trips back to 1990's Baltimore, Gilliam makes it look like the beginning of the end. It's a world that seems to be crumbling away, the streets filling with trash and the countryside skeletal and dying. It makes you wonder if the world is ever going to be saved, with the films chilly, hushed atmosphere creating a perpetual sense of creepy unease.

'12 Monkeys' proves that Gilliam is one of cinemas great visualists, as he frames things at an angle, tilts the camera awkwardly and films inmate cells from an impossibly high ceiling. It all creates a dizzying sense of disorientation and distrust in what you're seeing. This appropriately fits the film as it flits back and forth between the future, present and past constantly making you re-evaluate what you're seeing. Sometimes Gilliam's films can become too confusing for their own good, but that's not the case here. The compex plot starts to constrict itself in ever tightening circles, fitting the puzzle together and creating a circular logic that has a tragic resonance to it. Gilliam enjoys crafting downbeat and ambiguous endings and '12 Monkeys' has a doozy of a climax. It makes perfect sense yet leaves the audience yearning to know more as it opens up a whole other world of possibilities.

(On the '12 Monkeys' dvd, there's a documentary 'The Hamster Factor' where Gilliam admits he was initially planning to cut the film off earlier. Thankfully a producer convinced him otherwise as Gilliam's original ending doesn't provoke the debate that it should do).

The cast do stellar work too. Pitt is all ticks and showmanship as the loon Jeffrey, but it's an enjoyable performance all the same, crossing the line between funny and dangerous quite often. Stowe, an often underrated actress, has a difficult job of acting as the audience as she has to piece together the riddle of Coles mission. She does a great job however, and gives '12 Monkeys' a very human focus as she's pulled along with Cole and the truth slowly begins to dawn on her.

And then there's Bruce. See, here's the thing about Bruce Willis. Deep down we (and he probably) know that he could be a great actor if he just applied himself and stopped doing lazy crap like 'The Whole Ten Yards' and 'Tears of the Sun'. Because he's terrific here, and no-one does moody and tortured quite like Willis. He utterly buries himself in the performance and rids himself of his smug quips and smirks. He gives the potentially thin Cole real depth and character, and we feel the inner tragedy of a man who's seen the end of the world and feels powerless to prevent it. There's a lovely scene where Cole is in Railly's car and some music comes on the radio. The look on Willis' face as he loses himself to it is both moving and warming.

The three lead roles are all potentially bland, but the cast fill them with much much more.

'12 Monkeys' has the feel of a production of total conviction between the director and the cast, with them pulling together to create a film that goes beyond the genre trappings of sci-fi into something much more exciting, challenging and deep. It's arty yet accessible, complex but makes perfect sense, doom-ridden yet slyly hopefu, deeply scary but madly entertaining. It's magnificent and it's pure Gilliam.

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