One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

4 out of 5

Directed by: Milos Forman

There’s a lot to potentially read in to Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest… or there might not be. There are some easier themes I can imagine a young me glomming on to – naturalism; anti-authoritarianism; male vs. female issues – but then there’s a puzzling obliqueness gliding about beneath the surface, which, by my opinion, makes the film much more interesting. However, I’m not sure that vagueness is exactly purposeful, and that feels like the hitch that prevents the movie from being some stronger, and more affecting: Forman (and screenwriters Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman) seem to have lifted enough counter-culture notes from the scene which birthed the source novel by Ken Kesey, coding in repressed sexuality as an ultimate sin, and the blindness of leadership, but it’s then presented in a sort of easy-going, half-comedic formula, letting us laugh if we want to, but holding back, at the same time, in case that’s not the “right” reaction. Take Randall McMurphy’s (Jack Nicholson) statement to the mental institution’s doctor about the reasons for his arrest, prior to being transferred, for evaluation, to the facility in which the film takes place: one of his charges is for statutory rape of a 15-year old, and his offhand defense amounts to something all too familiarly uttered in a post-#MeToo world, akin to “she wanted it.” The way Nicholson rather charmingly delivers this line, you can read him as an everyman; you can be on his side. Or – you can judge him, and carry that to the way he incites his fellow patients into actions throughout the movie. But rather than this being a potential point of the film, it comes across more wishy-washy: I can imagine asking Forman whether the movie is about X or Y, with the options being opposite, and him nodding to both.

McMurphy arrives, and is quick to establish a type of camaraderie – or so it’s presented – with the other patients, and an antagonism towards head nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). The first half the of the movie is played somewhat lightly, for kicks, as Randall organizes faux escape attempts, and encourages those around him to speak up against the rule of Ratched. Some louder outbursts at the midway point prompt more direct treatment – electro-shock therapy – and the second half of the movie is a bit more aggressive: now McMurphy needs to escape, and he’ll bring anyone with him who wants to come. While McMurphy is clearly the “hero” and Ratched the “villain,” Forman is careful to – and his actors phenomenal at – not overplay / overplaying that. Nicholson is pure whimsy, and isn’t forcing those around him in to anything, but he also doesn’t exactly pause for their opinion; similarly the various recognizable faces – Christopher Lloyd, Danny DeVito – portray variants of neuroses, and allow these to be the guiding factors in their behaviors, not veritably agreeing or disagreeing with Randall. Fletcher’s Nurse may have a slight smile on her face when she gets her way, but she’s not the absolute authoritarian figure I associated with the name before having seen the movie: there’s a contextually understandable following of rules that have worked for her thus far, and that hint of smile is something I think we’re all guilty of, when something we’re convinced of as the “right” way holds true.

This grayness in the handling of these themes is fascinating, and the restrained score and cinematography all align with that. However, the concluding scenes do seem to give way to more obvious reads: sex is liberating; rules are damning; we’re slaves to authority. Randall is turned in to a folk hero of sorts for his rebellion, and for the viewer, in a sense.

While I’m glad Forman didn’t opt for a more outright read on some of the lamer anti-authority, anti-women stuff, I do wish the movie was presented a bit more intentionally. As Ebert’s excellent retroactive review points out, it’s hard to say at what level the manipulations are taking place in the movie (with the characters, with the audience, etc.), but it is absolutely deservedly a classic, which still holds up as a very compelling viewing.