12 Monkeys (1995): Trauma and The Prescience of Gilliam’s Vision

By Joan Amenn

Terry Gilliam created a nightmarish vision of the future in 1985 with possibly his best-known film “Brazil.” That proved to be just a warm-up for the mind-bending, chilling dystopia of “12 Monkeys’ (1995) which has only become even more prophetic in the current worldwide pandemic of COVID-19. The husband and wife team of David and Janet Peoples wrote a screenplay that is surprisingly poignant in its subtext of compassion and kindness being vital to treating mental illness.

As much as protagonist James Cole struggles with the anguish of his post-traumatic stress, we now face our own troubling and harrowing present. It is a harsh reminder that while our reality is not as fatally bleak as Cole’s, it is a strain on the mental health of us all. While “12 Monkeys” is terrifying in its own right, it is actually a remake of an experimental short French film titled, “La Jetee” (1962) that is atmospherically creepy. Mostly consisting of just still photographs, “La Jetee” follows a similar plot to “12 Monkeys” but the main characters are somewhat limited in their development. David and Janet Peoples wrote a powerful screenplay that gives Madeleine Stowe a chance to shine in her role as psychiatrist Kathryn Railly. This is a provocative twist on the female protagonist of “La Jetee” who we never learn much about. Dr. Railly is very polished and confident in her chosen profession until she meets James Cole (Bruce Willis).

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Bruce Willis in Twelve Monkeys (1995)

“Gilliam shows us that human kindness and understanding still matter, even in the face of great world upheaval. All we have is each other in brief moments of time.”

Even when she first questions Cole, she is cool and detached but she admits that she has a feeling of déjà vu as she observes him. Cole shows all the symptoms of severe trauma and even paranoia; confusion, fear, anxiety, mood swings. Basically, he is in dire need of psychological care so you can almost see Dr. Railly checking off the mental boxes of her initial diagnosis.

The genius of the script is now rapidly Cole and Dr. Railly engage together and change each other’s perception of reality. As she slowly realizes that there is reasonable cause to believe her patient she is increasingly drawn into what she once thought was his psychosis as we, the audience are drawn in too. Cole, on the other hand, seems to draw strength from her and becomes more determined to choose his fate rather than remain the vulnerable and unstable victim of his circumstances.

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Bruce Willis and Madeleine Stowe in Twelve Monkeys (1995)

Ironically, Dr. Railly gave a presentation on the Cassandra Complex, in which a patient suffers trauma but is not believed when they tell their perception of what caused it. This is precisely where she finds herself at the end of the film. Cole warned her that they could not change the pandemic that was coming but Railly responds to his desire to stay with her in a tender scene where she is at her most panicked. They do not quite share the love so much as understanding as her compassion for his mental suffering is returned by him when she grasps the full implication of the truth. She can no longer “decide what’s right and wrong…who’s crazy or not.” She has literally lost her faith, as she says, in what she calls the “latest religion,” psychology.

“It is difficult to watch “12 Monkeys” now and not be terrified in the context of the current state of the world but it does offer some solace in how it presents mental illness. Cole is a man capable of friendship, even love, despite experiencing the symptoms of trauma.”

Willis plays Cole as manic, haunted, and vulnerable which of course, is a complete change of pace from the snarky action hero he is known for. It is even more devastating to hear him say in this film that he cannot save anyone when he is so well known for doing exactly that in others. Instead, we are drawn into his apparent mental illness with Railly until we begin to question what is real in the film too. Is Cole just suffering delusions about time travel or did he really go back to WWI? This is the beginning of Railly’s realization that Cole is suffering but maybe he is not delusional, maybe he is traumatized by the experiences he has told her about because they are real. The reality of a bullet removed from Cole’s leg that can be traced to a WWI pistol cannot be theorized away. Together they face a desperation to survive what they now both know is coming, but of course, Gilliam does not make that easy.

12 Monkeys Brad
Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis in Twelve Monkeys (1995)

It is difficult to watch “12 Monkeys” now and not be terrified in the context of the current state of the world but it does offer some solace in how it presents mental illness. Cole is a man capable of friendship, even love, despite experiencing the symptoms of trauma. Ironically, his condition cannot be categorized as PTSD because that condition refers to past experiences and he is traumatized from the events from his future as much as when he was a young boy. Gilliam takes the screenplay as far as he can in extracting as many unexpected plot twists as possible to leave us as disorientated as Cole.

From our small glimpse into what it is to what it’s like to feel lost and vulnerable, there is hope that we can appreciate what it is that those with mental illness go through in their daily lives. Gilliam shows us that human kindness and understanding still matter, even in the face of great world upheaval. All we have is each other in brief moments of time.

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