Twelve Monkeys is one of the more unhappy films. Unhappy films are difficult to pull off–The Godfather Part II is the finest example–but Monkeys does it. When I say unhappy, I don’t mean a sad ending or an unpleasing one or an unrewarding one. Not even a cynical or downbeat one. An unhappy film, if it does its job, sucks the empathy from the viewer and chucks it in an incinerator. The unhappy film leaves the viewer spent and unwilling to try again. They’re tragedies in the truest form and films, being the most commercial form of fiction–in a reasonable sense, I’m not counting television (with some notable exceptions, of course)–tend not to go too far in to real tragedy. A person wouldn’t want to see it again or, more modernly, double-dip on the DVD releases. To do it right is to make an experience worth the draining effect. These films are not infrequent (at least not during the period Monkeys was made), but they are somewhat occasional.
Monkeys has something else to make it a rarity, anyway. It has a script from David Webb Peoples, who hasn’t had a new script produced since Monkeys came out in 1995. While Gilliam might bring the mood of the film, the sets, the warped technology (and, according to IMDb, Willis and Pitt’s excellent performances), the Peoples (and Peoples, written with his wife) script brings the perfect plot structure–including a fantastic, three-act structured forty minute first act–and the romance.
If Gilliam is responsible for getting Willis’s great performance out of him, the Peoples got the stunning work out of Madeleine Stowe. I’m a big Stowe fan, lamenting her absence from cinema on a weekly basis, but I’d forgotten her performance in this film. It’s easily one of the finest performances in the 1990s, but probably since then too. Stowe’s function in the film is to convince the audience and she takes it to a level beyond, the one where it’s possible for Twelve Monkeys to be so depressing, but also so rewarding.
The film moves through time and frequent settings–whether the future or mental hospitals–the first act definitely establishes some common grounds. Then Stowe and Willis go on the road–the only defect has got to be some of the blue-screened driving composites, I was hoping they were some homage to Hitchcock, but I don’t think so–even though the settings still repeat and become the familiar, the terrain the film crosses in to is new. There’s a scene in the woods with Stowe and Willis fighting–she’s kicking him–and I realized I was watching a wholly unique moment of cinema. The best moment in the film, direction-wise, is that scene in the woods (as well as the scene returning to the woods). Gilliam is showing the viewer something he or she cannot see anywhere else; more, it’s impossible to incapsulate–to get the most from that scene, one has to watch what comes before and what comes after, regardless of how it turns out–which is what makes Twelve Monkeys one of those films. The rewards are in appreciating it.
Sometimes I think I’m remembering wrong and the 1990s wasn’t such a superior decade for filmmaking. Then I watch a film like Twelve Monkeys.