Girl on: Terry Gilliam’s ’12 Monkeys’

Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt in 12 Monkeys

There’s this thing that happens late in this movie, after our lead has been quite thoroughly broken down, where he’s sitting on a bed trying to come to terms with his situation. In that moment, Willis turns into the small scared traumatised boy that we’ve been flashing back to throughout the entire running time.

It’s strange, you run through the whole film thinking that there’s no way this man is hot enough to pull off being that creepy, and sure, Madeleine Stowe’s transformation from weeping abductee to romantically entangled co-conspirator isn’t really sold like it should be, but the realisation that wow, this is a man fundamentally broken lands good enough to see you through.

At least until they go to a cinema and watch a Hitchcock double feature and then the film does an out of nowhere Vertigo parody, it’s such a strange choice and one that feels like it would be right at home in a much worse film. Like, part of Gilliam’s charm is his knowing wackiness, there’s a good visual gag during the asylum escape sequence of a guy teetering on stilts to change a too high lightbulb, but this thing is so serious.

There’s bits like that all over, the weird attempted rape scene is super jarring, especially given how it’s just them walking into a place, getting attacked and then walking right back out. I guess I’m less charitable towards Gilliam’s brand of cynicism toward literally everything than I used to be.

Like, eco-terrorists, that’s a very nineties sorta mood isn’t it? These folks who are simultaneously legit clowns and yet the destabilising force of the entire world. Like he’s saying that everything is fucked up, but also, what’s the point in changing any of it? Brazil at least had that fascism as farce thing going on, this just seems nihilistic.

Like that ending, holding on a kid who’s witnessed a tragedy they’re unable to understand, watching the plane that they were supposed to board fly on away. The world is a far too complex web of unanswerable questions, and we’ve just got to be alright in out inability to understand.

I think any version of this film today though, made by just about anyone else would follow the therapist character, treat this man like some sorta enigma to be solved. Instead it’s a story about a bunch of people who know who they are, and how they react when that conception is challenged.

But despite that, it still believes in madness as an absolute, as something provable. Willis is a time traveller, and it scrambles his brain, but his thought patterns are ours and despite his deeds is redeemed though his ability to be known. And Brad Pitt, doing a whole lot, is a crazy person, and nobody can understand him, and that makes him a threat.

There’s something here about cycles, about how we’re trapped into repeating ourselves, always making the same mistakes. The handlers in the future, styled very similar to the doctors in the psych ward (obvious) warn of the danger of ‘being addicted to that dying world.’ Like any chance to fix things is frustrated by the overwhelming immediacy of the now.


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