#247 – Twelve Monkeys (1995)

From 499,955 votes, Twelve Monkeys has an 8.0/10 rating on IMDb.

In a future world devastated by disease, a convict is sent back in time to gather information about the man-made virus that wiped out most of the human population on the planet.
Twelve Monkeys is the kind of movie that makes you go “huh” and is better on a second viewing than the initial exposure to the many plot twists and turns and semi-complex time-travelling tom-foolery that occurs over this 2 hour romp. Yes I’m using the word romp again. It’s a good word, sue me.
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This movie is really good. Really, really good. It’s as quirky as a serious sci-fi movie can get, with the campest arrangement of scientists since The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the French-sounding leitmotif that plays at awkward moments, and the purposefully cringeworthy performances of the myriad mentally ill patients. It centres around James Cole, a prisoner in an dystopian future where the human race has been ravaged by a virus. He is played by Bruce Willis, a man who I knew as Elizabeth’s dad from Friends. Bruce Willis is fantastic. His acting is totally convincing and absolutely blew me away. Also he gets his arse out twice and as far as screen arses go it’s a 10 from me.
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Something Twelve Monkeys does brilliantly is its depiction of the treatment of patients in mental illness institutions in the 90s and how drugs were used to pacify patients. The movie explores the concept of insanity from three perspectives: from the point of view of those branded insane, the point of view of the psychiatric community, and the point of view of the unwashed masses who are portrayed as hostile and ignorant, something often reflected even today in real life when it comes to mental illness. In this, the movie stands up, and it’s well informed.
Madeleine Stowe and Brad Pitt make up the supporting cast, and both are brilliant. Stowe as the voice of reason and sympathetic victim of being the person assigned to the wrong job at the wrong time, and Pitt as the unhinged son of a famous virologist who manages to be entertaining and disconcerting at the same time. The two rise up Willis’s performance to great heights, and while the movie has big, interesting ideas, if you take it as a character piece it works well too.
There’s one scene that I just fell in love with. James and Kathryn (Stowe) are in a seedy hotel. James is breaking down in the face of his situation – he’s constantly back and forth in time and it’s taken its toll. He chooses to believe the reality that makes the most sense: that he’s mentally impaired and is actually from the 90s, not the apocalyptic future. Kathryn is sympathetic and comforts James, seemingly taking a maternal role as she clutches him to her chest. It’s a really sweet moment, impeded by a man breaking into the room. Chaos ensues. Just watch it.
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Honestly, all I can say is that the plot is tight, the acting is excellent and it’s directed by one of the Pythons. Go watch it and just lose yourself in a weird plot. And then watch it once more to fully get it all in a new light. You won’t be disappointed.
Here’s an interesting question: what is sanity? This was the title of one of the essays I had to do during my MSc, and it was a very interesting exploration into how society treats those who are different, specifically in their perception of the world we share. Is it not being of sound mind? Is it seeing things or hearing voices? Not being able to live independently? Well it could be all of them, individually or combined, or it could be none of them. The concept of insanity is one that is not necessarily useful in a clinical setting, and is very much formed through media consumption and primes a person to have certain opinions on those with mental health issues.
Moscovici (1984), the pioneer of the social representation theory, found that the public perceives the mentally ill as ‘aliens’ and highlighted that efforts to make mental illness more familiar to sane people often come up against significant barriers. Despite this, in the western world the word ‘madness’ constructs a very specific mental image of failing to function adequately, marked with incoherence and feelings up to and including unquenchable rage and the lowest depression. De Rosa (1987) studied this by asking children to draw a person, a mad person, and what they thought a mad person would draw if asked to draw a person. Thematic analysis showed images with elements of strangeness, deviance and danger, implying that social representations of the mentally ill involved beliefs that they are ‘monstrous and deviant’. When asked to draw a mad person, children illustrated them often as drunks or criminals, but also sometimes as clowns or artists, suggesting that the perception of mental illness is not wholly negative and dangerous, but complex and sometimes fantastical, supporting Moscovici’s idea that the average person takes mentally ill people as ‘aliens’. 
The medical model has, in the past, tended to be as dichotomous when applied to mental health as it is when applied to physical health; either you are ill, or you are not. There is much evidence to the contrary when it comes to mental health. Trzepacz and Baker (1993) developed the Mental Status Examination which it utilised by professionals around the world to assess an individual’s psychological functioning at any given time. The test involves assessing the individual on multiple qualities such as thought content, mood, appearance and potential for suicidal ideation. The purpose of the test is to find out to what degree the individual is suffering from any given ailment and can also serve as a therapeutic tool to help individuals who are agitated, frightened or angry (Vakkur, 1998). Its development and use highlights the vast complexity of the spectrum of sanity and madness and how sliding down that scale can manifest in a multitude of ways. With such a large variation in the symptoms and prognosis of many mental illnesses, the issue of definition is brought up again: the question “is madness as defined by its connotations a useful term to use in this age of modern psychology?” is brought up and should be evaluated.
Reina (2009) examines this idea of a sanity spectrum further, relaying his own experience with schizophrenia. It serves as an insight into his descent into insanity and subsequent return to sanity through diagnosis and treatment. Reina relates how the delusions started out quite benign, but escalated to the point where he tried to take his own life multiple times. At the beginning of his illness, Reina experienced mostly benign delusions about how the world worked that would be alarming to some people, but dismissed as superstitions by others. He was able to deceive psychologists and hide his illness until the behaviours it elicited became too obvious for intervention to not be an inevitable response. The point made here is that madness is not intrinsically uncontrollable as some would believe, and it is not always observable. In this it is hard to define. It is this muddy, grey area that provokes thought when it comes to distinguishing sanity from madness.
Phew. If you read all of that, you deserve a reward. Have the arse of Bruce Willis.
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De Rosa, A. (1987). The social representation of mental illness in children and adults. In Doise & S. Moscovici (Eds.), Current Issues in European Social Psychology, Volume 2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Moscovici, S. (1984). The myth of the lonely paradigm: A rejoinder. Social Research51, 939–967.

Reina, A. (2009). The spectrum of sanity and insanity. Schizophrenia Bulletin36(1), 3–8

Trzepacz, P. T., & Baker, R. W. (1993). The psychiatric mental status examination. New York: Oxford University Press.

Vakkur. (1998). The Mental Status Exam II. http://www.vakkur.com/psy/HumBeh.html

2 thoughts on “#247 – Twelve Monkeys (1995)

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