On Being Sane in Insane Places


illustration by Tony Stella

There is a haunting scene near the end of Terry Gilliam’s sci-fi noir, Twelve Monkeys, in which Bruce Willis and Madeleine Stowe hide out at a 24-hour movie theater. He is an escaped mental patient (or is he a time traveler?) and she is his psychiatrist (or is she just delusional?). On the run from the law, they prepare disguises and watch Vertigo, Hitchcock’s tragic, obsessive ghost story. Willis’ character, James Cole, remembers seeing it as a child and leans in toward the screen. “The movie never changes,” he says. “It can’t change, but every time you see it, it seems different because you’re different. You see different things.” I remember Twelve Monkeys vividly. I saw it for the first time when I was 15, three years before I had my own experience with mental illness. I see the movie quite differently now.

To those who suffer from mood disorders, the partition between sanity and madness is porous, like a living membrane that surrounds the mind. This boundary breathes and fluctuates, but it is, of course, invisible. If it evaporates, it is not necessarily apparent at first. Moods shift, sleep patterns twist, fantasy and reality blur, the dream state overwhelms the waking. Something is unleashed from another realm. Twelve Monkeys understands and manipulates this permeable psychic border. Unlike the literal-minded “descent into madness” film (already a tired subgenre unto itself), Twelve Monkeys investigates how mental illness operates cognitively through the use of speculative metaphor. Science fiction is the prism through which we analyze the very thought process of mental illness. It acts as a sort of bipolar parable.

Cole is a time traveler sent from the year 2035 back to 1996 in order to prevent the release of a virus that wipes out 99 percent of the world’s population. Many of the previous “volunteers” for this assignment with less mental fortitude suffered nervous breakdowns. Cole, a prison inmate with a sharp intellect and a history of violence, accepts the mission with the promise of a pardon. As he warps through the boundaries of time and space, he himself begins to unravel. Co-existing in, and torn between, multiple time periods, he loses sight of his initial mission, and becomes convinced that he is suffering from psychosis. Is this future a reality or is he mentally divergent? Is this the past or is it the present? Has the past happened yet? Cole is not the typical anti-authority madman asserting his sanity in the face of oppression or an insane system, but, rather, a sane man convinced that—in the face of the absurd—he must be mad.

A psychotic break or severe manic episode is a bit like the collapse of the time-space continuum; oscillating between sanity and insanity, akin to traveling through a sort of inter-dimensional portal. As the bipolar mind spirals into itself, the imagination becomes overwhelming. In the depths and heights of mania or psychosis, gibberish mutates into a delirious manifesto or a supposed masterpiece. The delusional person can become divorced from reality, concocting a vision of themselves as romantic heroes with apocalyptic visions: prophets, celebrities, saviors—or perhaps even time travelers. The mind becomes engaged in a delirious act of worldbuilding, cobbling together a labyrinthine conspiracy out of clutter. The magical thinking of the manic depressive can reconfigure reality into a paranoid fiction, or perhaps, science fiction.

Sci-fi has a tendency to be a cold, macho genre with an emphasis on action, adventure, hardware, and warfare. Twelve Monkeys is a much more intimate work, a mind game of abnormal psychology inspired by physics, philosophy, and altered states of consciousness. For a post-apocalyptic time travel thriller about a plague that ends civilization, this poetic movie is primarily about ideas, dreams, and characters. This type of SF questions the malleability of reality, the fabric of the cosmos, issues of morality, the nature of spacetime, and the structure of the universe down to the quark. This is Philip K. Dick territory: Science fiction that investigates how the bipolar mind works, the rambunctious delirium mixed with a sort of terror and wonder in the face of the unknowable.

Cole is in captivity at the county mental hospital, following an assault on a number of police officers, when he meets his psychiatrist, Kathryn Railly (Stowe), for the first time. He is naked, curled up in the fetal position, forcibly restrained. He rocks back and forth, drugged into submission, streams of drool running down his chin, muttering to himself in confusion. Like a wild animal caught in a trap, with little awareness of his actions, he wails, “Why am I chained? Why are these chains on me?” Willis—he of the smug smirk, arched eyebrow, and dry, cool wit—delivers the line with such tortured vulnerability, such helplessness, that it shatters our perception of the action star. Unstuck in time, deranged, imprisoned, and now a human chemistry set, Cole is broken, lost.

There is true sensitivity in Willis’ performance. There are numerous moments of Cole’s manic, childlike glee. He laughs while splashing around in a pond, smiles when he hears oldies on the car radio. “Can you turn this up?” he says, giddy as a little kid. He is innocent, in awe of a living world in contrast to the decaying, gray prison of the future. Although Cole is brutal and tough, there are moments when he feels shame and guilt for his mental defectiveness, his inability to tell hallucinations from reality. Is Cole really hearing voices or do they belong to a homeless man he meets on the street? Is he from the future or just a damaged sociopath? Are there really transistors implanted in his teeth? Twelve Monkeys is too ethereal to answer these questions directly.

Throughout the film, Cole has a series of ambient recurring dreams that evolve in his mind with reference to his experiences. We later learn these dreams are a fuzzy memory from his youth; a shoot-out he witnessed at an airport. As he encounters a series of characters throughout the film, the dream transforms and introduces new elements. Faceless players in the vision morph and assume different identities, new people are inserted and later removed. Memory is malleable, reality is unstable, and in this equation, even time is a variable. The movie’s narrative itself is bookended by (and transforms into) the dream of its main character. In Twelve Monkeys, Gilliam, a director for hire on the project, transforms a Hollywood genre piece into a European art film.

The messiah complex is not a recognized psychiatric diagnosis, but it fits within the delusions of grandeur generally associated with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. There is a certain sci-fi trope wherein a psychotic speculative savior descends the mountain, opens the mystical portal, rescues the princess, and discovers the grail. Think Donnie Darko; Gilliam’s previous film, The Fisher King; the mental hospital sequences with Hurley on Lost; Quentin in The Magicians; or Noah Hawley’s recent X-Men adaptation Legion. The mental hospital, apparently, is one of the stations of the cross.

This is essentially Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey applied to mental illness. The mad main character is elevated to the level of supernatural shaman warrior. The true fantasy of mental illness, the romantic lens that makes madness palatable to the masses, is that the delusion might possibly be real. The hero has not lost his mind; he is a fearless leader who has found the answer to life, the universe, everything. These entertainments celebrate the creative gene of the mentally ill while eschewing the more damaging elements. Twelve Monkeys does not romanticize the condition. It analyzes how the demented quest purports meaning to the madness and, when the mind doubts that quest, it breaks down. It is a raw and disturbing depiction of the struggle rather than a shallow magical triumph over mystical forces.

The movie lays a significant shadow of doubt as to whether Cole’s time travel mission itself is genuine. A series of match shot reverberations echo throughout the film. Cole is forcibly scrubbed in a shower in the year 2035 after collecting samples on the Earth’s surface in a biohazard suit, and then scrubbed again in the exact same fashion at the county mental hospital in the year 1990. Cole appears before a committee of scientists in 2035, and then a similar committee of doctors when admitted to the psych ward. In the hospital, Cole witnesses a patient receiving an MRI and the machine bears a close resemblance to the tubular time machines that transports him. Nothing is certain and everything up for reevaluation.

Brad Pitt plays a paranoid trust fund activist Cole encounters in the county hospital. His is the madness that drives others mad. Pitt’s unmedicated mannerisms are all disjointed angles, his hair a frazzled mess. His speeches are barked rather than spoken, and he has a predilection for flipping the bird and baring his ass. When a mental health worker tells him to keep quiet, he says, “I’m a mental patient. I’m supposed to act out.” His Looney Tunes eyes are savagely askew. And every paranoid observation he makes is damn near true. (“Learn your drugs, know your doses. It’s elementary.”) For the role, Pitt studied with the director of the bipolar disorders program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine (and to make him particularly edgy, Gilliam would also steal Pitt’s cigarettes). In a medium where the mentally ill must either be martyrs, villains, or harmless nuts, this unrestrained schizoaffective performance is a phenom, like running your hand over sandpaper.

Gilliam is an artist, but he is a prankster first and foremost. Although we know that mental illness isn’t all fun and games, who doesn’t love a good ol’ zany, vaudevillian asylum populated with drugged loons in bathrobes (with a Marx Brothers movie playing in the background for good measure)? So it goes. But this is not just a perverse, insensitive portrayal of mental illness riddled with quasi-eccentric stereotypes, it is a bipolar burlesque with a sense of humor, a pageant that even includes a dance sequence. In Twelve Monkeys, the threat of violence, paranoia, death—and maybe even beauty—is always there, just beneath the decaying surface of the demented carousel.

When I watch Twelve Monkeys, I am torn between times: the past, present, and future, if not necessarily in that order. They are all braided together into a strange loop. We are all the absurd hero at the epicenter of a demented plot, a quest to unravel the conspiracy, wandering in a realm of the sane and the mad. Twelve Monkeys is, after all, a time warp Ouroboros spiraling into itself, with the same beginning and end, doomed to cycle in perpetuity. So while I might change, the movie itself never changes. Still, every time I see it, it seems different because I’m different. I see different things. I see a funhouse mirror version of myself.