In 1982, Tears for Fears sang about our "Mad World." But is the world mad, or is songwriter Roland Orzabal's perspective of it just tinted with madness? We imagine that's the question 12 Monkeys protagonist James Cole would pose after enjoying some chart-topping synthpop.
Throughout the film, Cole is plagued by questions of his own sanity. One minute, he knows he's a time-traveler from a future where humanity has been decimated by a virus. The next, he accepts how ludicrous that proposition is.
This thematic tug-o-war pulls on both Cole's and the viewer's minds, with the film offering convincing evidence that both conclusions are correct. In the end, the only real conclusion we can draw is that our society and the powers that govern it are ill-equipped to help people suffering from such mental illness.
Questions About Madness
For the sake of argument, let's assume Cole is totally, completely, utterly mad. How do you read the film's ending if we assume this to be true? What is it trying to say on this theme?
Why do you suppose the film chooses to include a character like Jeffery Goines, who is mentally and dangerously unstable? How does this character affect your reading of the theme of madness?
Terry Gilliam chose to film the mental hospital on location at Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary. Why do you think Gilliam chose this location given your understanding of this theme?
Chew on This
Through the character of Dr. Railly, 12 Monkeys views the concept of madness not as a mental illness resulting from physical or chemical miswirings in the brain, but as a state of perception we are all susceptible to.
Through creative framing, camera angles, and set design, 12 Monkeys invites its audience to partake in the madness and explore that state of mind. See a doctor if effects last longer than two hours.