Willis was at his most experimental here in Terry Gilliam’s sci-fi time travel fantasy. The film was nominated for several awards, notably for the costume design (woohoo full body condom outfits!) and also a supporting actor nod for Brad Pitt (more on him later).
Willis is a convicted criminal in the future who’s sent to the past via some bizarre contraption to find out what went wrong with the world. Oh yeah! Apparently there was a virus outbreak of some kind and all mankind is in the shitter. So naturally you invent time travel and send convicts back in time to save us right?… What?
Only in the mind of Terry Gilliam. Anyway back in the 90s and Bruce ends up almost instantly in the mental ward. There he meets lovely doctor played by the always underrated Madeline Stowe, and fellow nutcase inside Brad Pitt whose energy, wonky eye and peculiar dialogue has to be seen to be believed. But whilst Pitt’s nutcase activist son of a billionaire (Christopher Plummer) is such a joy and deserves all the accolades he gets, it has to be said how well Willis carries the film with a very quiet performance. I’m still in shock that people can nominate Pitt for what he did and then overlook Willis. It’s truly a brave performance (not every A-list actor wishes to be seen crouching naked with long lines of drool and snot hanging from their faces).
Bruce manages to escape his prison and return to the future only to be sent back to try to pinpoint the cause of the disaster which then finds him on a sort of road trip with Stowe’s character. The two bond and eventually fall in love. It does seems a bit tacked on, but it plays beautifully into the film’s ending which ties in neatly with the main character’s own vision of his boyhood past. This being the inspiration for the film taken from the French wonder La Jetee.
It also gives us a wonderful parallel of duel identity which is also something that runs through Hitchcock’s Vertigo (which our characters are seen to watch at one point). But the biggest theme that runs throughout the film is that of madness. Gilliam is obsessed with madness, and whether the mad truly are mad, or actually make more sense in what they do and say than those that are deemed sane. 12 Monkeys has a wonderful time exploiting various angles of this. Often it’s used to distract our hero in his quest and make him pause to question what’s real and what isn’t (at one point laughing at the people in the future as he believes them to be figments of his imagination). And don’t let Gilliam make you think he doesn’t have a sense of humour as the film essentially is a huge black comedy masquerading as an insane adventure.
Even the violence is comedic. Take a look at the scene were Willis pummels an intruder with a telephone. Distracted by Stowe’s character he turns to look at her while his arm keeps slamming the phone into his victim. The film only seems to take on serious tones when dealing with memory and the tragic past that comes full circle at the film’s close.
David Morse (who would go on to work with Willis in 16 Blocks) has a small but instrumental role of the mad scientist sidekick to Plummer. Yes, it turns out that this small player is the one responsible for all our woes and Willis spots him right at the end when he finally it seems to have caught himself a break and a happy ending. Of course this all gets taken away in the airport finale where our hero is gunned down by security – right in front of his childhood self. It’s a beautiful and provoking moment to watch which Gilliam handles perfectly. For such a surreal moment, he slows the camera work right down, cants those angles and has soft string music playing over the top.
12 Monkeys is a rare film. That’s probably the best description to give it. Gilliam excels himself as a director and Willis excels as an actor and also in the choices he was making at the time.