Jeffery Goines is nuttier than a fruitcake. He has bats in the belfry. He has more than one screw loose. In other words—the guy is insane.
And…that's basically the entirety of his character.
Just listen to the way this guy introduces James Cole, his mental hospital roomie, to the television:
GOINES: There's the television. It's all right there. All right there. Look, listen, kneel, prey! The commercials! We're not productive anymore. Don't make things anymore. It's all automated. What are we for then? We're consumers, Jim. Okay, okay. Buy a lot of stuff, you're a good citizen. But if you don't buy a lot of stuff, what are you then? I ask you! What? You're mentally ill. Fact, Jim, Fact!
What are we supposed to do with that? The guy sounds like a freshman spit-balling a philosophy paper after downing four and a half Redbulls.
If you can manage to straighten out his winding manner of speech, you'll find that Goines serves two real purposes: he provides a foil for our protagonist, Cole, and he cooks up a mean red herring.
Foil Me Once, Shame on You
Like Cole, Goines has some real oddball ideas. He believes, for example, that the psychiatrists in the mental hospital copied his brain into a computer.
You see, the reason for this is…you know what? We'll just let him explain it:
GOINES: When I was institutionalized, my brain was studied inexhaustibly in the guise of mental health. I was interrogated, I was x-rayed, I was examined thoroughly. Then they took everything about me and put it into a computer where they created a model of my mind. Yes! Using that model, they managed to generate every thought I could possibly have in the next, say, ten years, which they then filtered through a probability matrix of some kind to determine everything I was gonna do in that period.
In truth, that's probably as crazy as saying you are from the future to save humanity from a deadly virus, but it's all in the delivery.
Unlike Cole, Goines' delusions have led him to blame the system, and this is where the idea of a "foil" comes in. A foil is a character who provides contrast to another. As such, the nature of Goines' insanity contrasts with Cole's.
Cole wants to save the world and prevent humans from living undergrounds. Goines, on the other hand, doesn't really like the way the world has ended up. His list of complaints is endless but includes television, capitalism, animal rights, and that one guy who keeps sitting in his chair. Cole's motivation is selfless, while Goines just wants to—and we quote—"f**k the bozos."
Also in contrast to Cole's selfless motives, Goines seems to want to strike out against his father, a man he refers to as God at one point. It's unclear what type of relationship the two have, but Goines' grand plan is to set loose animals from the zoo and cage his father in the gorilla enclosure.
Clearly, Goines wants to knock his father down a notch or two.
Smoked with Insanity to Seal the Flavor
A red herring isn't a fish. (Okay, it is a fish, and one that is crazy tasty when smoked in Jamaican-style cuisine.) In this context, though, a red herring is something meant to distract you from the actual problem. And Goines serves as a red herring in 12 Monkeys.
While at the asylum, Cole and he watch a program about scientists inhumanely experimenting on animals. Cole offhandedly mentions that maybe the human race should be wiped out. Goines hears this, saying,
GOINES: First, we have to focus on more immediate goals. I didn't say a word about you-know-what.
We also learn that his father is a famous virologist, and the one whose lab produced the virus that eradicated humanity. Cole even has a dream featuring Goines running through the airport as someone chases him. Plus, Goines is super crazy—he must have been the one who did it.
Except he isn't. As we mentioned, his grand plan is to release some animals from the zoo and cage his father in the gorilla enclosure. The culprit is really Dr. Peters, Dr. Goines' lab assistant and a total apocalypse fanboy.
The bait and switch with Goines plays into the film's obsession with perception. Like the Scientists and Cole, the audience goes along with the idea that Goines is responsible because we perceive that he is. But this is just the film toying with our concept of reality within the context of the film. Makes you wonder what other aspects of the film only seem true because we don't know to look at them in a different way.
Maybe, just maybe, Goines is the truly sane one. But probably not.