This is a personal one for me, as this particular movie is what made me want to make movies (I mean, I had always wanted to, but this really cemented it). And it’s also the one that I answered with for years when someone asked me “what’s your favorite film?”
I’ve always liked Randle, the themes, and the sad yet hopeful ending.
And on this viewing, I still enjoyed the film immensely. My “favorite movie” answer has since been replaced with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (I guess I have a thing for long titles), and the Coen Brothers might inspire my filmmaking ambitions more than this one, but it still holds a special place for me, and I still think it’s one of the greats.
Following along with the order of the crazy good podcast Unspooled, I’ll talk about some of the things the film does well.
And here we are with 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, directed by Milos Forman and written by Lawrence Hauben, Bo Goldman, and Ken Kasey.
Fight for vitality
“I tried, didn’t I, goddamn it! At least I did that.”
All good movies say or ask something, and this one seems to be saying “You have to fight hard to keep your vitality.”
Randle Patrick McMurphy is the ultimate sign of vitality. His personality is a force throughout the film. He’s energetic, confident, and persistent. He does have a problematic past, statutory rape, which is something we can’t totally ignore, but his charisma does make it really tough to totally dislike him.
No matter what kind of adversity he faces, he continues to persist, like trying his hardest to lift the fountain out of the floor. After being denied getting to see the World Series a couple times, he still doesn’t give up, and creates his own version of it for everyone else.
He also inspires the others around him. They had all given up, many of them even voluntarily committing themselves to the hospital. But Cheswick gets inspired enough to admit that he wants to see the World Series too and to also protest the rationing of cigarettes. Billy loses his virginity to Candy, and he doesn’t stutter when he says that he’s not ashamed for doing so. Chief Bromdem gets enough strength to finally escape.
Nurse Ratched tries her best to suck the vitality out of the patients. So brilliantly played by Louise Fletcher, she almost never loses her cool doing so, having almost the same composure as HAL from 2001. She works on breaking many of them down, and she finds way to instantly destroy their confidence, like threatening Billy with talking to his mom.
Maybe it’s not always a bad thing to hold back their energy, since we see some of the violence that erupts when the patients are inspired, but she is for sure an expert at breaking them down.
The story has the Jesus parable that I discussed in the Shawshank Redemption post. Randle inspiring those around him, but being a sacrificial lamb for it. It is a cathartic experience, though, to see Chief walk away from the institution. Before he did, he did his friend the ultimate favor: he killed the lobotomized Randle,reinforcing the theme. He would not have wanted to live without the spark of life in him.
What can be taken away
Per being so great, and a filmmaking inspiration to me (and I’m sure many others), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest does a lot of things well.
Let’s talk about some of them.
The main theme of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is not “mental institutions are fucked up,” but that is still a big takeaway from the film.
Most of the patients are made worse by being in the institution. The electric shock treatment is shown to be the nightmare that it is in real life. And the way that they “cure” Randle at the end is taking out some of his brain to sedate him. Pretty messed up stuff!
This is a side benefit of an important film: it can say a lot of other things that it might have on its mind.
There seems to be some cautionary tales about drinking in it too. Chief's dad was destroyed by alcohol. “Every time he put the bottle to his mouth, he didn’t suck out of it, it sucked out of him.” It’s also what causes Randle and others to pass out during the Xmas party, which resulted in some bad consequences.
This is undoubtedly a sad movie. BUT it’s also a very funny movie.
In fact, the laughs are pretty consistent throughout. To name a few:
-Randle laughing his ass off over Taber and Harden fighting
-After Nurse Ratched telling them she’s rationed their cigarettes to prevent gambling, Martini asking “How are we going to win our money back?”
-Randle introducing everyone on the boat as a doctor, except for “Mr. Harden,” and the look Harden shoots him.
-Scatman Crothers assuring everyone “Ain’t no one jerking off nowhere!”
-Col Matterson all decked out in Xmas decorations.
-“The next girl that takes me on is going to light up like a pinball machine”
These moments are really important because they balance the movie out. It could feel incredibly dark and unwatchable if it wasn’t balanced out with some levity, and the fact that the movie has so much of it makes it easy to rewatch, despite its sadness.
I talk a lot about it in my article The Continuum, but striking this balance is what creates greatness in films.
This movie is only a little over two hours long, focuses mainly on Randle and Nurse Ratched, yet there are SO many memorable characters in it that we feel we get to know well:
Cheswick, Chief, Taber, Billy, Candy, Rose, Martini, Harden, Scanlon, the “I’m tired” guy, the nightwatchman, etc.
The reason they become so memorable without a ton of specific screen time is that each character is very well-defined.
Cheswick is agreeable and supportive yet very childish. Chief is kind and extremely reserved. Taber is a troublemaker. Billy is innocent and shy and sweet. Etc.
Having characters like these with strongly defined personalities, all different from each other, is a big piece to having them be memorable. This way you can have an entire wing of a hospital featured in a movie and feel like you know most of them.
There’s something contagious about very vibrant characters in movies. Just like how a fun person at a party can make everyone else have more fun, a character like this in a movie can do the same to an audience.
In this way, we’re like the patients in the movie that Jack Nicholson inspires. Wherever we’re at, we can watch the film and feel a little more zestful.
Thus, it’s such a painful image to see him lobotomized.
But whatever is holding us back, it’s nice to think that we can still rip a fountain off of a floor and smash through it. All we have to do is try.
Maybe pieces of its commentary and some of its slightly problematic issues make One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest a little dated, but it’s main theme will always hold up, and I think it will always be watchable.
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