Round and Back We Go
The narrative technique featured in 12 Monkeys seems complex at first glance thanks to some twisty time-travel shenanigans. We start with James Cole in the destitute future of 2035. Then we suddenly find him in the year 1990. Next, we follow him back to 2035 before taking another temporal road trip to 1996, but not before a small detour to the front lines of 1916's France.
We could keep going, but you take our point. Time travel is confusing stuff, and watching the film's settings whiz by can give you a case of serious narrative motion sickness.
To help, we recommend that tidbit of parental wisdom offered to many a carsick youth: don't look at the stuff moving by; instead, turn your focus to something stable in the horizon. And 12 Monkeys' most stable feature is none other than James Cole (stable here being a relative term, obviously).
Despite all the narrative backtracking and destinations, Cole's path through the story is straightforward and follows the beats of a familiar detective story. He jumps around time, but for him, each event is the next one chronologically. As he goes from one event to the next, he learns some new piece to the puzzle of the virus, and each new puzzle piece leads him to the next event. Ultimately Cole discovers who released the virus and sets out to stop him.
A Wrinkle in Time
Actually, there's another wrinkle in the story's narrative. In the section above, we tried to straighten out the narrative thread for you. Unfortunately, we're about to tangle that thread a bit by pointing out that Cole may be an unreliable narrator.
As the name suggests, an unreliable narrator is someone whom we can't entirely trust to give us an objective account of his experiences. With Cole, we can't be certain that he is really a time-traveler. He may be mentally unwell or, as Washington puts it, "mentally divergent."
Granted, we see Cole in the year 2035, but is he really there? Or are we simply being shown his perspective, his private delusion resulting from his mental illness? After all, the characters from the future interact only with Cole. Also, Cole's recurring dream changes throughout the film, suggesting it really isn't a memory or at the very least that Cole's recollection of events is open for debate.
Before you think we're being too down on Cole, remember that he points out this possibility himself:
COLE: Wouldn't it be great if I was crazy? Then the world would be okay.
Of course, we can't say with any certainty that Cole is an unreliable narrator. He could be incredibly reliable. The future could really exist, which would explain why he knows that Ricky Newman was hiding in a barn. And Cole's dream changes could be the result of his messing with the past and his memories revising to the new reality. The Scientists do say they chose him because he is "tough-minded" and "strong mentally."
Ultimately, we can't say one way or the other. The film provides evidence for both readings, so like Cole, you'll just have to determine your own reality.