One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is an exercise in how to do crass right. The language is pretty intense and some of the conversations they have are extremely lewd. But it's there for a reason. Every word really seems to be chosen. I often gripe about language making a screenplay juvenile. This movie knows how to curse right. Also, there's some pretty risque stuff, including Brad Dourif's butt. R.
DIRECTOR: Milos Foreman
I took a big risk, guys. This was my favorite movie for most of my life. When I was in high school, I'd watch this movie on a loop. I became obsessed with this movie. I read the novel. I bought the play. I wrote my high school senior thesis on this story. I became obsessed with Ken Kesey (but I didn't read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I don't do drugs, guys! STRAIGHT EDGE!). But this became the anthem of my teen years. Sure, I was invested in youth group and I was all about going to Steubenville, but this was how I vocalized my rebellion. This was what made me deep. I tried recreating this experience over and over again. Catch-22 didn't exactly his the same buttons and I wouldn't really get into The Catcher in the Rye until I was an adult. But then I stopped being obsessed. Many of my obsessions take years to leave my system. I'd need something new to replace it. Eventually, it was replaced by many a film and story, and I just always accepted that One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was one of my favorite films. I still list it in my Top 5, but I had little basis for that. I graduated in 2001, so I decided to give this one a revisit...on our garage's big screen.
Let me establish right now, as much as I hate old me, he was right. The movie is perfect...mostly. I recommended this movie to a film student last year and he was meh about it. I started doubting myself, but that film student was wrong and anyone who disagrees with me on this movie is wrong. It is a factual truth that this movie crushes. The odd thing is that I have to question my relationship with this movie now. I'm not a rebel. I will never be a rebel. My idea of fun is writing essays on the Internet for fun about movies that I really like. I would hate meeting McMurphy and I would probably understand that Nurse Ratched is only doing things for my best interest. But gosh darn it, I tended to side with a statutory rapist when it came to the narrative. (Just to be clear, McMurphy's actions are abhorrent and I'm about to get to that.) McMurphy is an absolutely despicable human being at the beginning. I have to believe that Kesey wrote his character to be absolutely selfish and self-involved. We're meant to feel icky with the list of McMurphy's crimes because his makes one of the best hidden, yet drastic changes in film history. He's on the level of Scrooge, but that change is almost more interesting than Scrooge. Ebeneezer Scrooge completely changes his personality, become a whole new person. McMurphy changes his intentions and self-view, but still relies on his strengths to make change. FORGET THIS BEATING AROUND THE BUSH, SPOILERS! McMurphy is still a brawler and he still does awful things, but he's trying to change the world around him in the only way he knows how. He has no role models or outside mentors to tell him how to make proper change. The people who are meant to be his mentors have a dark side to them, involving power.
Nurse Ratched is a character who does noble things for a hidden wrong reason. She enjoys the power and lies to herself. Louise Fletcher portrays Ratched with something power mad behind her eyes. Anyone in this position, me included, would probably justify injustices with the knowledge that absolute power is there to enforce a sense of control over the uncontrollable. What she is doing is objectively good. She is maintaining order because order brings rehabilitation. But she has a bit of Hamlet's madness to her. She takes things too far with her joy for control. Look at the scene with the vote over the World Series. She enjoys knowing that McMurphy is embarrassed by her level of power. She does it twice, most likely predicting the result of the second vote. When McMurphy gets close to achieving his goal, she closes down the meeting, knowing that she would lose given time. It is in that moment where she goes from altruist to villain. In the initial scenes, her only crime is her calmness. That calmness is haunting, but could be equated with a well-intentioned camp counselor. Her first scene involves her doing a limited calesthetics routine with the patients. What's genius about her character is that her reaction to adversity can be read in two ways. By any stretch of the imagination, her first group therapy session can be seen as catastrophic. But her reaction is neutral. She doesn't lose her cool nor does she try to outshout the chaos. From an audience perspective, this can be read as either control --which is completely within the realm of her character -- or apathy, which is not beyond her either. It is only later when she explodes at Martini wanting to have his cigarettes, do we see how McMurphy is destroying that control. Ironically, this is the one time that McMurphy wishes to support Ratched. That's absolutely brilliant.
When I wrote my senior thesis on Cuckoo's Nest, I based it almost exclusively on one scholarly article linking McMurphy to a Christ figure. I loved this image in the day and I can still kind of see what I was thinking. However, that is a pretty simplistic and forced juxtaposition. McMurphy is a remarkable foil to Ratched and vice versa. This is a battle of wolves. These are alphas ripping at each others throats in the most passive aggressive (and often aggressive aggressive) ways possible. There's this genius moment where McMurphy realizes that no one is looking out for his interests and he puts his pack in line. He adjusts his behavior without losing his central character drive. This is Nicholson at his best. I love pre-'90s Nicholson. Not to say that I don't like him in stuff like The Departed, but he had this intensity behind it. Yeah, I too can do the Nicholson impression. But in this era of his career, it almost cheapens what he brings to each part. There are such subtle beats. Perhaps what I liked when I was younger was a misinterpretation. I always saw McMurphy in the same way that the inmates saw McMurphy. He was this force of nature. I would have been intimidated and tried to do whatever was necessary to get him to like me. Now, I see him as a man slowly realizing that he's out of his depth, but he still fights anyway. Rather than comparing him to Christ (because this allegory still works now that I think about it), I should compare him to Atticus Finch. He is fighting the battle that he knows he cannot win, but he will fight regardless. The scene with him trying to lift the water dispenser is the metaphor for the movie. He knows he can't do it, but he's going to convince everyone that he can up to that final moment. The battle isn't in destroying Nurse Ratched. The battle is in him trying. There is an intentional parallel there. McMurphy bets with the inmates about both of these moments. Why? Because their money is inconsequential. He has gained most of it from hustling cards. It's about their belief in him.
Again, flashing back to trying-to-be-rebellious me, I always associated with Billy Bibbit. I desperately wanted to play him on stage. No one ever did productions of the play. I have yet to see it on stage, but I really wanted to. Now, I'd be lucky to play Harding or Martini. I look like Danny DeVito, but at least he had more hair than I do back then. (Yup, I'm jealous of Danny DeVito's hair.) But I found a weird sympathy for Taber that I never noticed before. Taber is Christopher Lloyd's part. A young Christopher Lloyd, to boot. Taber has this C-story throughout that I've never noticed before. Taber is the actual insane version of McMurphy. He is one of the few committed of the group. He thinks with his fists and I never noticed how he is usually one of the few people to support McMurphy against Ratched, regardless of context. He's more loyal and he's a ramped up version of Randall. Watching Lloyd's reactions to all of the moments is heartbreaking. His is the last expression we see of the film. He's the witness to Bromden's escape and he will be the one who endures after the fact. Just pointing that out. Watch the movie from Taber's perspective for a whole new film. It's really interesting.
I don't know if this is the forum to talk about the meaning of the end, but I have to say that I love the end. Yeah, I'll never justify suicide or homicide, but there is something very moving about the last shot of the film. The need for Bromden to secure McMurphy's legacy and to embarrass the institution one final time is absolutely perfect. For a movie that has such a dark ending, it is also oddly the most hopeful ending I've ever seen. It is the one film where someone achieving the impossible seems somehow believable. (Yup, I read that sentence too.) The chief's method of escape is just the best and I found myself smiling. In fact, many times in this movie, I found myself genuinely moved. I earnestly smiled at many moments and only caught myself doing it because that's what I'm supposed to be doing at movies. At best, I'm usually a passenger for the film, but One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest honestly engaged me on a different level. There are times when I considered it to be an R-Rated Hallmark movie because there were so many feel good moments. But these moments seem well earned. I don't ever applaud Randall Patrick McMurphy for who he was. I applaud what he became. I don't think he did anything the right way, but he tried his darndest to make sure the best outcome came out of the situation. And if we are still going back to that Christian connotation, he did sacrifice himself. Admittedly, that sacrifice led to sin and vice, but that's interesting in itself. I love this movie so much...
...even if I know it is against everything I believe in.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.