Jon Ronson (he of The Men Who Stare at Goats fame) submitted a report for NPR’s This American Life one week, about a man in England who pleaded insanity for a crime he committed. The defense worked; instead of going to jail, he went to a mental institution and thought he would get out in a matter of months. He discovered, with creeping dread, that proving that you’re sane once you’ve been branded insane is not easy at all. Decades later, he’s still there, fighting for his release.
This was a story that stuck with me, and I couldn’t help but remember it while watching One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest because it was so similar. McMuprhy (Nicholson) finds himself admitted to a mental institution after a short and troubled stint in prison for statutory rape; he figures that once he’s in he’ll simply do his time and leave without any issues. What he finds instead when he gets to the ward are a bunch of patients who voluntarily submit to the tyrannical rule of Nurse Ratched (Fletcher), a steely-eyed, soft-voiced disciplinarian whose power is gained by maintaining the status quo.
McMurphy immediately chafes under Ratched’s rules, and the basic conflict of the film is set. To all casual observers, Ratched is fighting the good fight; she’s gentle, reasonable, and tries to lead her patients to make wise decisions. What’s fascinating though, is that if you listen to the way she frames her Socratic questions, there’s a minefield underneath her delicate, innocent framing. She loads her interactions with half-insults meant to break down her patient, triggering guilt and uncertainty, setting herself up so that her “helpful suggestions” solve problems that she creates and advances. It’s insidious and ingenious. She takes great pains to cover her power through bland neutrality and misdirection.
That’s why McMurphy bucking against her authority seems to prove his insanity at first. But over time, his “coyote wisdom” has an effect on the patients and they begin to think things through for themselves. Her control slipping, Rached resorts to less subtle methods of regaining the upper hand, and the film escalates from there. It becomes apparent that only one of them can lead these broken men through their troubles, and both of them very badly want to be the singular leader of the ward.
Nicholson is affably unhinged here, crude but personable, as capable of insulting and complimenting you with equal sincerity. The film is populated with people who give singular but affecting performances (Fletcher won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress here, and Will Sampson is really entrancing as the silent giant “Chief” Bromden) and recognizable, bona-fide stars in early roles (Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd and Brad Dourif, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor). All of them carve distinctive and sympathetic characters with a minimum of screen time; I’m impressed not only with their ability to do the most with what they’ve been given, but the quality of the material they have to boot. By being incredibly flawed but relatable people, the chorus of the insane in the ward offer themselves up as real stakes for both Ratched and McMurphy; you want them to succeed, thus you want McMurphy to succeed.
The movie takes a rather dark turn towards its third act, and I won’t say much about it here in case you haven’t seen it yet. But the tonal shift proves to be the most problematic aspect of the movie — the escalating war between the nurse and the patient produces its first bit of collateral damage, and the immediate aftermath gives us something that can’t be condoned. I’ve been told that the scene in the book takes it much further than the movie, which introduces questions about misogyny on the part of the author and just what the intent is here. We’ve been with McMurphy up until this point of the film, so are we supposed to condone this too? If not, why take away our sympathy for the protagonist this late in the game? The story has so much momentum at this point, and it’s that much more jarring for the rug to be pulled out from under us in that way. What are we to make of what happens, and the consequences leading from that?
Still, you can’t help but wince at the ending, where the sudden and brutal conflict comes to its end. Both sides win, after a fashion, but the sacrifices they’ve had to make to get there are incredibly steep. I think your perception of it is determined by how optimistic you are; I think we’re meant to take away a bit of hope with the finish, though I could totally see if someone thought it tragic.
Very few people can manage to hang with Jack Nicholson at his prime, and it’s a testament to Louise Fletcher that she proved to be such a capable foil for him. The rivalry between Ratched and McMurphy prove to be the strong spine of the movie, capable of carrying the rest of the story on its back. Thankfully, it only has to do the heavy lifting in a couple of places; everyone else is on the game too.