The 1970s film aesthetic is one of my favorites because there’s such an unvarnished realness to the presentation that is hard to re-capture, especially in the digitized age. One film that best exemplifies what I mean is not just one of the best films of that decade, but one of the best films period: 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, an adaptation of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel of the same name. The novel is one of my favorite books I had to read for school, and the film, while different in some ways, has to be considered one of the best book-to-film adaptations ever, primarily thanks to the undeniable perfection of Jack Nicholson as R.P. McMurphy and Louise Fletcher as Nurse Mildred Ratched.
Nicholson arguably is one of the top three actors ever and this film is his showcase. He commands the screen and that’s perfect for the McMurphy character, who is a prisoner transferred to a mental institution under the passive-aggressive watch of Nurse Ratched, and who, compared to the rest of the patients (initially), isn’t as docile. He’s in-your-face. He wants to cause a ruckus. He’s untamable. He’s the bird in the cage waiting to flap its wing. And he tries to get the other patients to realize they, too, can fly. The rest of the cast creates a nice balance to Nicholson’s personality. It’s stacked, with Christopher Lloyd playing Max Taber and Danny DeVito playing Martini (there’s your throughline for my previous film watch of Matilda!). Brad Dourif also really shines in the role of Billy Bibbit, a stuttering young adult who is full of insecurity, doubt and issues with his controlling mother.
For a film about difficult subjects — mental health, state operations of mental health patients (especially in that time period), and suicide — the film is also darn funny? Quite a bit? McMurphy’s interactions with the other patients is hilarious, like trying to get Chief Bromden (played by Will Sampson) to play basketball or when the patients, thanks to McMurphy, go on a boat and lose control of the helm, or the entire party sequence at the end that ultimately turns dark. There’s a lot to find genuinely funny here, and a lot that then turns genuinely cringe and hard-to-watch, and dark as hell.
But that’s life, right? Hilarious at one turn, and the same situation, through a slightly different lens, becomes hold-your-breath shocking and painful.
Obviously, the two darkest parts are at the end. First, Billy, when he thinks Ratched is going to tell on him to his mother, he kills himself. He literally just had this great moment with a woman moments earlier and then … welp. The second is McMurphy, who is this free spirit finally being curtailed with a lobotomy. To the point where Chief, who doesn’t want McMurphy to continuing “living” in that way, smothers him to death before breaking out himself (using McMurphy’s own idea of the water fountain gizmo to do so).
The main thing I think about while watching the film (or reading the book, for that matter) is the juxtaposition between institutional control and human dignity. Or rather, maintaining one’s human dignity while under institutional control. Is it even possible? Not really. At least, not in this context. If you push too far and too hard, you get lobotomized or at least, get a jolt of electromagnetic shock therapy. But there’s even the small indignities that add up to an erosion of one’s individual dignity: being involuntarily committed, lining up to take pills, all wearing the same white outfit, being passive-aggressively attacked in group therapy, which seems the antithesis of helpful therapy, to be subjected to the same stimuli, and on and on.
Humans are not meant to be institutionally controlled. It’s not … natural, for lack of a better word. And that seems even more destructive when we’re talking about humans who are already working from a potentially unstable framework (mental health issues). The institutional control itself seems conducive to triggers rather than helping. But, also, that safety net needs to exist. Some people are such afflicted that they need that outside help to be there and ready to catch them. Achieving that balance is far beyond my purview or knowledge, but I, at least, feel as if we’re falling way short of that whether back in the 1950s when the source material was written or even today in 2021.
Perhaps the most goosebump-inducing scene of the film is when McMurphy conjures up the idea of using a water fountain to bust out (the aforementioned way Chief learned how to do as much, so some nice foreshadowing), and when it doesn’t work because it’s too heavy for him to lift, he says to the group, “Well, I tried, didn’t I? At least I did that.” Because everyone else, at that point, had stopped trying.
One thing I will say upon re-watch of the film for the first time in years and something that is a stark difference compared to the book: Ratched … isn’t as evil as I remember. She certainly is passive-aggressive, certainly seems to have a propensity to humiliatingly, say, Billy, and absolutely represents the edifice of institutional control in terms of being unapproachable and cold. But! Also, she’s dealing with the wild McMurphy and a bunch of other men. In that time period, no less! And McMurphy nearly choked her to death and she still showed back up to work in a dang neck brace. So, I don’t know. Her character in the film, at least, is a lot more complicated than I remembered.
There’s a lot to digest here, but if you’ve never read the book or seen the film, I highly recommend both. The film will make you laugh, cry and think and sometimes all within minutes of the other.