COLE: Yeah. [Chuckles]. Yeah, they've got them up on the seventh floor. They hide them up there. They're all messed up in the head. Brains don't work.
JOSE: Hey, you don't know they're all messed up. Nobody's seen 'em. And maybe they're not messed up. That's a rumor. Nobody knows that. I don't believe that.
We're not even ten minutes into the film, and already the theme of madness has dropped in to say hello. Note that the subject is already open for debate, too. Are the previous volunteers insane or not? No one knows, or if someone does know, they sure aren't sharing that information on the inmate wiki.
WASHINGTON: It's a condition of mental divergence. I find myself on the planet Ogo. Part of an intellectual elite preparing to subjugate the barbarian hordes on Pluto. But even though this is a totally convincing reality for me in every way, nevertheless, Ogo is actually a construct of my psyche. I am mentally divergent in that I am escaping certain unnamed realities that plague my life here. When I stop going there, I will be well. Are you also divergent, friend?
Point blank, here's the question Cole has to struggle with: is he mentally divergent? Is his dystopian future a personal planet Ogo?
And don't think you're getting off scot-free either. Movies are all about perspective, and just because you see something one way, doesn't mean it can't be seen another way. How do you know the future you see in the film is real? Perhaps the film forces us to hallucinate with Cole? Perhaps the film—and if you want to really blow some minds, all art—requires us to be mentally divergent to even participate.
PSYCHIATRIST 3: Are you going to save us, Mr. Cole?
COLE: How can I save you? This already happened. I can't save you. Nobody can. I am simply trying to gather information to help the people in the present trace the path of the virus.
PSYCHIATRIST 2: We're not in the present now, Mr. Cole?
COLE: No. 1990 is the past. This already happened. That's what I'm trying—
PSYCHIATRIST 4: Mr. Cole? Mr. Cole? You believe 1996 is the present then, is that it?
With the exception of Dr. Railly, notice how the psychiatrists don't really give a hoot. Most of them are uninterested in Cole's story, and one guy even enjoys a squirt of breath freshener—showing more concern for his coffee-infused dragon breath than another person's mental well-being.
This scene connects the theme of madness to that of power and suggests that those in power aren't too interested in providing help. This also connects to society as a whole later in the film when we see the mentally ill living unhealthy, dangerous lives on the streets of Philadelphia.
GOINES: Do you know what "crazy" is? Crazy is majority rules. Yeah. Take germs for example.
GOINES: Uh-huh. In the 18th century, no such thing. Nada. Nothing. No one ever imagined such a thing! No sane person anyway. Along comes this doctor. Uh, uh—Semmelweis! Semmelweis. Semmelweis comes along, and he's trying to convince people, other doctors mainly, that there are these teeny-tiny invisible bad things called germs that get into your body and make you sick. He's trying to get doctors to wash their hands. What is this guy? Crazy?
Goines may be crazy, but he makes a salient point here. Sanity is based on a culture's predominate view of reality. In the 18th century, no one knew about germs or cells, so speaking of living organisms you couldn't see would seem cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs. But that doesn't mean germs and other single-celled organisms didn't exist back then; we just didn't know better before Semmelweis. So Cole could be the Semmelweis of his generation…or he could just be cuckoo.
RAILLY: "In a season of great pestilence, there are omens and divinations. And one of the four beasts gave unto the seven angels seven golden vials full of the wrath of God, who liveth forever and ever." Revelations.
In the 14th century, according to the accounts of local officials of that time, this man appeared suddenly in the village of Wyle near Stonehenge in April of 1362. Using unfamiliar words and speaking in a strange accent, the man made dire prognostications about a pestilence, which he said would wipe out humanity in approximately 600 years.
First, how lucky was Cole that he was sent back to World War I, a mistake of only one hundred years? This quote suggests those future scientists can hit pretty wide of the mark.
Second, consider this quote in relation to the Goines one. In the medieval past, diseases were thought to be the retribution of a wrathful God, and any sane person would agree with that statement. Reality also undoubtedly consisted of angels, omens, and divinations. To not believe in these things would have been "mentally divergent" of the norm. In our modern era, it is quite the opposite.
Given this, is it possible Cole is just ahead of the curve?
MAN WITH RASPY VOICE: You can't hide from them, Bob. I said, you can't hide from them. No, sir, ol' Bob. Don't even try. They hear everything. They got that tracking device on ya. They can find you anywhere, anytime! It's in the tooth. Right, Bob? But I fooled 'em, old buddy. [Cackles and shows a mouth with missing and rotting teeth.]
COLE: They don't have to spy on me. I'm doing what I'm supposed to be doing. [Takes Railly to a wall with graffiti.] You see? Here it is again. Here, follow this paint trail. Here. It's here. See?
RAILLY: It's so awful! I—
The man with the raspy voice may be a fellow time-traveler, but let's assume for a moment that he's just a mentally ill man. The film goes to great lengths to show him and several like him to be homeless, sickly, and living dangerous lives in our modern urban societies. Far from receiving help from society, they are outcast and ignored. Just a little bit of social commentary to go with your questions of sanity.
FLETCHER: No way he could possibly know that. Kathryn. You're a rational person. You're a trained psychiatrist. You know the difference between what's real and what's not.
RAILLY: And what we say is the truth is what everybody accepts. Right, Owen? Psychiatry—it's the latest religion. We decide what's right and wrong. We decide who's crazy or not. I'm in trouble here. I'm losing my faith.
The connections just keep coming. Is what we believe about reality today just as faulty and prone to being disproven as the angels and beasts and vials of pestilence from Revelations? If so, could Cole's picture of reality be closer to the truth? Railly is starting to think so, and she also thinks that's a crazy thing to think.
GOINES: Here's my theory on that. 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.
This film doesn't like to give easy answers when it comes to its story or themes. But it does toss a few softballs for us now and again. For example, this quote lets us know that Goines is verifiably insane. End of story. Full stop. Period.
COLE: I don't know whether you're there or not. Maybe you just clean carpets. If you do, you're lucky. You're gonna live a long, happy life. But if you other guys are out there, if you're picking this up, forget about the Army of the 12 Monkeys. They didn't do it. It was a mistake. Someone else did it. The Army of the 12 Monkeys is just a bunch of dumb kids playin' revolutionaries. Listen, I've done my job. I did what you wanted. Good luck. I'm not coming back.
In the end, 12 Monkeys doesn't provide a definitive answer to the question of Cole's mental state. Instead, the film presents its audience with convincing evidence for both readings—whether you see him as insane or the bearer of inconceivable truths. This quote from the film's conclusion suggests that even Cole can't say one way or the other by the end.