I haven’t read a lot about One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, intentionally, for the first twenty-four years of my life. There is a certain lore to the performance and mystery to the allegory that intrigues the brain to either watch this film right away or to categorically forget it. I didn’t want to spoil my decision either way.
But as an impetus for this project, I decided to tackle this movie early on. My initial reactions are somewhat split: it might be a hangover from the campiness of San Francisco or I might just be dull to shock and awe, but I didn’t find the ending particularly powerful or Nurse Ratched to be particularly evil in the traditional sense. I want to explore these reactions in depth.
This movie is justifiable in its major oscar sweep, even among the movies nominated in 1975. Remember, five years after the release and idolization of Patton, the middle of the 1970s showcased the greatest density of the greatest movies ever made, and Cuckoo’s Nest is nested right in the chronological center. This affords it more than modest exposure – perhaps overexposure – and not just because of its shining performances from Milos Forman in the director’s chair to Jack Nicholson’s delightfully misanthropic R.P. McMurphy and Louise Fletcher’s domineering and understated Nurse Ratched. The story is singularly linear and does a perfunctory job developing all of the characters as a series of exposes – both demonstrating character strengths and flaws through the particular brand of Ratched’s evil.
But as for the lasting impression of Ratched’s evil? I’d argue she’s paradoxically too evil and not evil enough. She’s the head nurse at a small Oregon state mental hospital, in charge of the well-being of 18 patients with varying levels of mania. Some patients are self-committed, some state-mandated, like Nicholson’s McMurphy. But Ratched morphs her power as a caregiver into that of a caretaker. A minor distinction, sure, but to the absolute stature and reputation among the “Doctors,” she has the power to literally take and take and take, all for the sense of decaying the atrophy of the crazy. Her evil is seen through the lens of the general oppressor so relevant in the ’70s, off the heels of Cuba and Russia and especially Vietnam.
Fletcher’s portrayal of the demented nurse playing foil to Nicholson’s lackadaisical bully begs the question, “What do we mean when we say a character is crazy or evil?” Are these adjectives refined enough to describe a character in full? The answer here is no, that deep exploration is where Cuckoo’s Nest earns its keep among the greatest films ever made. Because you can make the argument that McMurphy was the evil one – with shades of mania – for giving his fellow inmates a false sense of hope and freedom from their inner torments. Or you can conjecture Ratched as insane leading the insane; someone so un-self-aware that evil is almost an afterthought. I didn’t particularly get the impression that Ratched was intentionally a horror; while she does use humiliation and over-medication as a semblance of order, I see no attempt to systematically destroy a group of people…perhaps she’d be out of a job? She is a peculiar evil incarnate, as flawed as her
inmates patients, but kept behind glass with a record player and a PA system, as if to observe.
As for McMurphy’s fate, the lobotomy was sudden but not unexpected. He, like the other patients, was tired of the prolonged domineering Ratched, who after completely destroying Billy Bibbit (a pseudo-protagonist – we root for him, right?) with her slick tongue and lack of filter to the point of driving him to suicide, McMurphy attacks and nearly kills Ratched in the film’s only semblance of a climax. As per the times, McMurphy’s violence was tempered with “alternative” medicine, perhaps first with electroshock therapy (which was common among mental illness treatment during those dark days) and then with forced braindeadedness. He was then deposited back among the other patients (most likely on Ratched’s orders) to frighten docile and submissive behavior into them. Seeing McMurphy, the supposed leader but really a thief among thieves, in a “there-but-not-there” state that few of the patients would recognize triggers another modest foil (“Chief” Bromden) to McMurphy (steadiness to ground the mania) to put him out of his inconsequential misery and escape the institution. The film ends on declarations of sheer joy from the other inmates upon seeing the broken window. They fail, yet, to notice McMurphy.
At first, his unfortunate, though expected demise seems contrived for two reasons. First, it ties a neat end to what is supposedly a messy life. I don’t buy that this whirlwind of a man would just end. It seems that there’s a lot more of a character to explore and to exploit for obvious “teaching” purposes. But I understand that there needs to be some kind of snipping of loose ends. That being said, imagine the alternative: the camera pans out during the fight and we’re left with the image of Billy, dead, and our own thoughts as to how the different characters would respond. It’s a different film and perhaps too nonlinear for the mainstream audience.
Second, what does the triumph do for these characters? Like unfettered joy or shocking unhappiness, the feeling of triumph is fleeting. And especially for those in an altered, perhaps worsened, mental state does ephemeral feeling mean anything? Does it have to? It’s a nice callback to have The Chief escape via a McMurphy plan and it’s again, quite neat, but the story here seems geared toward “lesson teaching.” Roger Ebert, in his initial review for the Sun Times in 1975, says plainly:
Milos Forman’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is a film so good in so many of its parts that there’s a temptation to forgive it when it goes wrong. But it does go wrong, insisting on making larger points than its story really should carry, so that at the end, the human qualities of the characters get lost in the significance of it all. And yet there are those moments of brilliance.
But in his 2003 rewrite, this sentiment is nowhere to be found. Perhaps we’ve become more forgiving and more yielding towards our rebels. We often get lost in “teaching moments,” when there are fine inter- and intra-personal relationships to be explored.
Because of competition in 1975: Jaws, Dog Day Afternoon, Barry Lyndon and Nashville and the fact that Cuckoo’s Nest so firmly demolished each and every one gives this film a level of opulence experienced only two other times: 1934’s It Happened One Night and 1991’s Silence of the Lambs in modern film review. I have little gripe with the movie. It is a fine example of 1970s filmmaking to encapsulate 1960s attitudes made for 2010s audiences.