This is a special reward available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 a month levels. Each month those patrons will get to pick a film for me to review. They also get to include some of their own thoughts about the movie, if they choose. This Pick comes from Matt Harris.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Written by Lawrence Hauben & Bo Goldman
Directed by Milos Forman
The United States has had a profoundly complicated relationship with mental health for the entirety of its existence. Mired in the regressive repression of religion, it was seen as proper to punish those with mental illness for behaviors outside of their control and often their understanding. What existed even further beneath the veneer of tough Christian love was a focus on conformity and the expulsion of the aberrant. Those who would not conform to societal norms were verboten, sent off to die inside mental hospitals where they would be brutalized into complete psychological oblivion. This ideology inspired author Ken Kesey to write his novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Late nights sitting up with patients at the Menlo Park Veterans’ Hospital led Kesey to believe these people were not insane. Instead, they did not behave within the conventions society had deemed proper, and so they had to be extricated from public existence.
In Oregon in 1963, R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is transferred from prison to a mental institution after he fakes psychological issues to get out of the hard labor detail. The ward he is put in is dominated by Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher), a calm but brutally exacting presence among the staff. He quickly befriends his fellow patients, from young Billy (Brad Dourif) to Martini (Danny DeVito) to Taber (Christopher Lloyd) and many more. Most importantly, McMurphy begins to form a friendship with The Chief (Will Sampson), a mute Native American who towers over the other men. McMurphy becomes restless, especially for these other people who seem cemented into their neuroses, never really aided by Nurse Ratched in any meaningful way. McMurphy makes it his goal to get these people to see life for all the possibilities it has and hopefully inspire them to find a way to escape. But this is no fairy tale, and life rarely ends up how we wish.
This is a masterpiece film. It’s not perfect, but despite those flaws, it is both a masterclass in acting as well as a profoundly humanist picture. I love that the picture doesn’t shy away from the brutal reality. McMurphy is by no means a saintly protagonist. When he first sits down with the hospital’s director Dr. Spivey, he admits to his reason for being incarcerated; he committed the statutory rape of a 15-year-old girl. Of course, he says she told him she was 18, and he tries to use his “male urges” as an excuse, but as audience members, we are immediately put off by this man. We’re then challenged by the picture to see him as a human being, often in the same way we are challenged when coming face to face with people who have mental disabilities. The movie seems to ask us, “Who is deserving of love?”
Director Milos Forman, making his first English language picture, does such an excellent job of capturing the chaotic feel of a psych ward. This is home to a group of people who can’t find a way to mesh with what society asks of them. You have repressed homosexuals, epileptics, those with dementia, people filled with anger, and others utterly terrified of the world and what is being asked of them. Forman is on record as saying what drew him to the film was the authoritarian nature of Nurse Ratched, which he related to the oppressive regime that drove him out of Czechoslovakia. He sees the film as a metaphor for how systems worldwide dictate how to be to individuals in a way that drives them literally insane.
Helping the audience feel off-center is the experimental musical score by Jack Nitzsche. There isn’t much music, but what we get is performed with tribal drums, a bowed saw, and wine glass rims. It creates a silly, dizzy feeling to the picture, reflecting the distortions in the mind of many of the characters. The music evokes a sense of sadness, disorientation, and a little hope. It’s unlike music you’ve probably heard in any other movie and fits the story perfectly.
It should be noted that Ken Kesey was brought in to help write the script but left due to creative differences. He didn’t think Nicholson was an excellent McMurphy and thought Gene Hackman was better suited for the role. Even more, he was unhappy the film centered the narrative on McMurphy instead of the novel where the point of view is The Chief’s. I am curious to read the original text to see how that change in perspective affects the narrative when McMurphy is spoken about at a distance.