A recent viewing of Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, a film I’ve seen several times since its release in 1995, left me wondering if, despite some appealing cyclical time-travel logic, it doesn’t deliver quite enough of a mindfuck.
The film tells the story of Bruce Willis’ Cole, a man from the near future sent back to the past (our present, at the time of filming, the early-to-mid ’90s) to gather information about the virus that is destined to force humanity to live in quarantined bunkers underground, surrendering the world outside to the unaffected animal population. Cole is reluctantly aided in this by a psychiatrist he encounters, Madeleine Stowe as Kathryn Railly, who, while understandably sceptical to begin with, is eventually convinced that Cole’s story is true. The two of them go beyond what Cole’s mission brief specifies and instead attempt to track down and defeat The Army of the Twelve Monkeys, supposedly the anarchist group that releases the virus.
I’m a sucker for a decent time travel plot and Twelve Monkeys doesn’t disappoint, from the way in which Railly is the trigger for Cole’s initial return to the future from his initial visit to the past, when she leaves a joke message on an answerphone six years after this has happened, to the final reveal in which we see that Cole knew all along how he was going to die. It is, like any good time travel story, utterly defeatist. You can’t change what’s coming; as Cole points out, he isn’t here to save anybody — how can he be, when everyone’s already dead?
However, a weakness of the film is that it gives the game away right at the start. From the perspective of Railly, Cole is merely a very passionate, reasonably enigmatic crazy man, not very different from any of her other patients, but as the film progresses she sees more and more evidence to support his story and eventually comes around. But for us, we know already that Cole isn’t crazy. Is he a man from the future? Well…yes. We know because we see him in the future. We see him have his mission explained to him, and we see him return to the future to be debriefed. During the film’s climax, we see other characters from the future turn up in the past, and these characters aren’t just glimpsed — they talk to him and interact with him. The audience is left in no doubt; Cole’s story is true. It’s difficult to interpret these scenes in any other way; there’s no suggestion that these are dreams or hallucinations.
But what if you watched the film without all of the future scenes? What if all you saw were the scenes from Railly’s perspective? Then you’re placed in the same boat as she is, and you have to judge for yourself Cole’s sanity. His escape from a locked room early on in the film — we know how he escaped, he was transported into the future. Take that perspective away and the locked room mystery is a genuine mystery, and time travel is just one possible answer, and a particularly wacky answer at that; more likely somebody just let him out.
In another scene, Cole is accidentally transported back to the trenches of World War One, only briefly but for long enough to be shot in the leg. Again, we know that this happened because we see it, but what if we didn’t? Then, again, we’re put in Railly’s position, weighing up the evidence — in this case an antique bullet in his leg and an anecdote from a history book about a man who appeared in the trenches unable to speak French or German and who babbled about the end of the world — and forming her own opinion. The only flaw here is that the history book actually contains a photo of Cole in the trenches; a pretty generous conceit considering this photo is taken in mid-battle.
The way Railly comes around to Cole’s view is, from our perspective, entirely understandable, because we know he’s telling the truth. Take that perspective away and the film becomes something different; it’s about Railly’s descent into madness herself, and the audience is left with many more questions than answers.