“I must be crazy to be in a loony bin like this.”
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has been lifted up as a story of one man standing up against the establishment, leading a group of oppressed mental patients to freedom. Mine may be an unpopular opinion, but I don’t see it that way. Directed by Milos Forman (Amadeus, Hair) and starring Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, this film swept the Oscars in 1975, becoming the second film in history to win the big five: Best Film, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. It’s a product of the cultural revolution of the 60s, which had become mainstream in the 70s, and I see it in relation to that era as Fight Club was to the 90s: a blatant rejection of the previous generation’s culture that seems heroic, but ultimately proves to be misguided and damaging.
The plot follows R.P. McMurphy, a serial petty criminal with a free spirit that can’t be tamed. He can’t bear the thought of another prison stay, so he pleads insanity and is sent to a mental institution for evaluation. He befriends the inmates there, who seem to be oppressed and live in fear of the head nurse, Nurse Ratched, who works hard to maintain order, although she doesn’t tolerate any threats to her power. The nonconformist McMurphy clashes with Ratched’s mandate for order and predictability and the conflict grows and begins to spiral out of either of their control.
I think he’s dangerous. He’s not crazy, but he’s dangerous.
McMurphy was hailed as a hero by many critics for standing up against an oppressive establishment, but the morality of this story is much more complicated than that. It would be one thing if the establishment was 100% evil, but that’s not the case. Knowing what we know about mental illness and its treatment, the establishment is actually in the right for pushing for order and predictability, and the rebel’s attempts to “free” the inmates with things like hookers and beer is actually incredibly damaging. This isn’t rebellion for some grand cause—it’s rebellion for the sake of rebellion, and it’s done recklessly, without care for the others involved. All that said, Nurse Ratched is undeniably a villain. While what she strives for is ultimately helpful, her methods are abhorrent and are as damaging as McMurphy’s mayhem. There’s an African proverb: “When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” That’s exactly what’s happening here. Nurse Ratched represents one ideology and McMurphy represents another; but when they clash, the vulnerable people caught in the middle are hurt by both.
As complex as the morality of this film is, the emotions are equally so. There are moments when you cheer for McMurphy and his attempts to lead others to freedom, and other times when you see how misguided and destructive he is, and other times when you’ll legitimately feel bad for him. There are some hilarious moments and some devastating moments. It’s all over the board, and the emotions all feel very natural when they emerge. This isn’t a story that manipulates you to pull your emotions from high to low, it’s just a complex story that legitimately has a lot of ups and downs.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a film where, when the credits rolled, I really wasn’t sure what I felt. It took me a while to think about it to arrive at any semblance of consensus of emotion, and I’ll have to think about it quite a bit longer to figure out what the moral message is. Whether it’s a timeless masterpiece or a product of the culture it sprang from, it’s definitely entertaining and connects with viewers on many different levels. You will feel things watching this movie, and it will probably make you think. Despite having some light and funny moments, it has some very dark and depressing moments as well, and those may turn some people off. But this film swept the Oscars and has endured as a classic for a reason, and that reason is that it’s simply great.
Director: Milos Forman