Twelve Monkeys is a story about the world after a viral plague kills 6 billion people in 1996. The time travel story jumps between the 1990s before the pandemic and decades into the future. The future is run by strange scientists who hope to track down the virus’ origin. They send James Cole (Bruce Willis) back in time with a mission to gather information.
Another protagonist in the movie is the psychiatrist Kathryn Railly (Madeleine Stowe). She is interested in the history of people who present a Cassandra complex. The Cassandra myth describes someone who knows the future but cannot do anything to change it. She wrote a book documenting examples of such people appearing in the past.
She is unfazed when she meets Cole who has the same outlook. She believes that he is mentally ill and she first meets him in her psychiatric hospital in 1990. She tries to maintain a clinical and objective interest in Cole. Cole vanishes for several years after his first hospital stay. He meets her a few years later and he kidnaps her for several days. Much of the story takes place during that kidnapping as she learns more about Cole’s remarkable story.
The future scientists are interested in a mysterious Army of the Twelve Monkeys which their surveillance indicates is responsible for the virus’ release. The Army of the Twelve Monkeys was led by Jeffrey Goines, played by Brad Pitt. His wannabe insurgents appear to be central actors in the plague because Goines father is a biologist studying deadly viruses. However, the exact role of Goines’ team is unclear until the end of the film. Goines and Cole meet when he shows Cole around the psych ward in 1990.
Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt provide excellent performances in the film. Willis portrays Cole as disoriented by time travel who does not know whether he is delusional or a “volunteer” traveling back in time on behalf of the scientists. He clearly demonstrates the sense of confusion and helplessness that his character experienced. Pitt portrays Goines as privileged, crazy and unpredictable with many goofy antics. Often institutionalized, Goines acts paranoid, manic and defiant. While in the hospital in 1990, he has a wild pillow escapade to help Cole escape. Goines has boundless energy and Pitt plays him very convincingly. Gradually Goines’ friends in the Army of the Twelve Monkeys realize he is unhinged and that his plans are going to end badly.