One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest ★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

I'm sort of conflicted on how I feel about this film, in large part because its protagonist is such a profoundly unlikable character. McMurphy is introduced to the audience as this cocky criminal, charged with the statutory rape of a fifteen year old for which he feels absolutely no shame. Those in charge at the institution believe him to have lied about his mental health in order to dodge prison time, and the film seems to support this fact. He's a brash, casually racist, and somewhat manipulative character - claiming to push for "liberation" within the institution in order to get what he wants. All of his acting out has the consistent goal of helping him and not really anyone else. Sure, he believes the party he puts on near the end of the film to be of benefit to everyone, but it ultimately causes more trouble than it was worth, and his early desire to watch the World Series feels incredibly self-serving.

Don't get me wrong, Jack Nicholson definitely delivers an outstanding performance in his role as McMurphy, but the character himself is pretty consistently reprehensible and, as a result, the emotional beats at the end of the film don't work quite as well as they should. Yes, the scene of Chief finding McMurphy does manage to have some emotional impact, but I think that's largely due to Chief - not McMurphy himself. I feel sorry for McMurphy to some extent, but I also feel like the audience is cheated out of him taking accountability for his actions when he is turned into a living example of the malpractices of mental institutions.

One of the more shocking aspects of the film to me was the subtlety of Nurse Ratched's antagonism through much of the film - particularly after seeing the advertising for Ryan Murphy's new Ratched series where she seems to be depicted as a more classically evil villainess.

Certainly the film sets Nurse Ratched up as an opponent to McMurphy's constant push for "freedom," but I believe her real villainy is a lot more understated. For a large part of the film it could be said that she's just "doing her job," but the way in which she does her job includes manipulating the patients in her care with topics she knows to cause them emotional distress. This is in addition to the more obvious abuses of power, namely the ordering of electroshock therapy and (later) lobotomy as punishment for patients acting out. As she's one of the few nurses/doctors with a speaking role in the film, she becomes a figurehead of sorts, representing a lot of the foundational issues with mental institutions and the way mental health was (and still is) largely mishandled within some of these institutions.

As a whole though, I feel like the later Girl, Interrupted does a similar story in a much more poignant and emotionally resonant way - not only because of it's more sympathetic leading character, but because of its more well-rounded ensemble cast. It is certainly a bit more formulaic in its use of narration and melodrama, but all of the characters feel like real people with their own significant role in the narrative, which is not something I would say for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

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