An iconic tale of rebellion and stubbornness, Milos Forman’s 1975 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, challenges notions of psychic normality and deviant behaviour, while illustrating the explosive meeting of an unstoppable force with an immovable object, and its aftermath.
What is the difference between the group therapy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and a typical dinner party across the land? Are the anxiety and neurosis shown in the film really worlds apart from the ones displayed by ‘normal’, well-adjusted individuals? There is no doubt that R. P. McMurphy is not crazy. More pertinently, is anyone in the group really insane? Billy has a self-esteem problem, but who hasn’t? Cheswick has an issue with self-control. Who somehow does not? And Harding suffers from a form of emasculation. Well, tell me about it…
Randal Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), 38 years old, is admitted to a mental institution after acts of violence and debauchery. When inside, and confronted by Head Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), he tries to inspire rebellion in the other patients, and make her lose her cool. What seems, initially, an easy task, turns into a nightmare for him. And although he slowly gains the trust of his fellow patients, the institution – like the head nurse – keeps pushing for ever harsher punishments, and in the end, wins the battle of wills. When shock therapy turns Randal into a zombie, Chief Bromden (Will Sampson), ends his misery with the help of a pillow.
At the outset, as McMurphy enters the mental institution, the assumption that he and the others deserve to be there is indeed strong. In hindsight we know that his odd behaviour is an act – a truly magnificent performance by Nicholson. However, when we’re seeing this for the first time we don’t know that. We just see that Chief Bromden is catatonic; Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif) speaks with a severe stutter, bordering on the pathological; Martini (Danny DeVito) shows an infantile attitude as he chases McMurphy’s playing cards with naked women; Harding (William Redfield) loses his temper when things do not go his way.
..‘… I’m talking about God, the Devil, Hell, Heaven. Do you understand?’
As we get to watch these people closely, we then realise they are like us. As McMurphy puts it succinctly: ‘What do you think you are, for Christ’s sake? Crazy or something? You are not! You’re not! You’re no crazier than the average asshole out walking around on the streets. And that’s it. Jesus Christ, I can’t believe it.’ He is stunned to learn that, unlike him, most of his fellow patients, who to different degrees seem to be more psychologically damaged than himself, stay in the mental institution by choice. The discussion deteriorates into a brawl, where McMurphy and Chief Bromden are taken away to be given shock therapy.
This group therapy scene is fundamental to understand the head nurse’s subtle approach and how the system works. Although she keeps her cool and composure most of the time, the game she is playing is cruel indeed. She puts on a pretence of respect (for the patients and for the rules) but cannot avoid condescending the adults around her. When Cheswick, inspired by McMurphy, demands to have his cigarettes with increasing lack of self-control, Ratched does not miss the chance to show who is in charge: ‘You sit down, Mr Cheswick, and wait your turn.’
But the head nurse is not acting out of deception – in fact, her behaviour is the consequence of the system too. She plays the role that was assigned to her – to keep the order; to uphold the rules. And that’s exactly what is terrifying about this cold and apparently rational approach to psychic disorders. Predictable, but nonetheless, terrifying. Predictable because institutional approaches to individual human beings’ problems almost always lack nuance. Terrifying because staff responsible for enacting institutions’ rules usually follow protocol blindly and have no legitimate authority to change responses according to the specifics of individual cases.
When Ratched parrots psychoanalytical sound bites superficially and out of context (‘… time spent in the company of others is very therapeutic…’), she truly believes she’s found the holy grail. It is ironic then that one of the patients, Fredrickson (Vincent Schiavelli) is more to the point and with the right tone of voice: ‘Do you mean to say: It’s sick to be off by yourself?’ The film is full of revealing truths like this. The main truth, even though not very subtle, obviously is the fact that most of them are not committed. Are people really that willing to submit to authority?
As McMurphy won’t yield to Ratched’s little game, he tries to reason, but eventually ends up arguing with her. However, reason is not part of her paradigm – and that’s his biggest mistake: believing that the system, armed with wisdom and common sense, is capable and willing to treat the people it serves with intellectual respect. Like everyone who believes in their own superiority, the head nurse knows her condescending attitude is usually enough to disarm opponents. But in McMurphy, she faces an equal adversary: witty, articulate and patient. He will lose at the end, but not without a good fight.
I guess that sometimes the giving away of the golden statuettes means something, for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest really is a great and important film – one of the masterpieces of the American New Wave.