I was about to write that there is no better portrait of mental illness in a movie than in Milos Forman’s Best Picture-winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but then I though of another film which won multiple Oscars and is on my short-list of movies to show the next time it’s my turn. Suffice it to say that Forman’s film is one of the better pictures on that subject that you’ll see.
Is Randall P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) insane? That question is the movie’s reason for existing, as McMurphy is sent to a mental-health ward when it seems that he may be too ill for a prison work farm. It is also the question I was asking myself constantly throughout the film, because Nicholson’s masterful performance – for which he won an Oscar – doesn’t give anything away.
At first glance, McMurphy seems the sanest person on the ward by a mile. He’s the most capable of functioning on the outside, and he doesn’t seem to be a danger to himself or others. Yet there’s something off about McMurphy. He’s almost supernaturally rebellious; his explanation of his crime could be a legitimate justification, or it could be the sort of excuse used by a guy who doesn’t care what the law thinks. When he calls Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher, also an Oscar winner) a “cunt,” it seems like a massive overreaction to a woman who at worst has merely inconvenienced him. There just seems to be something wrong with the guy.
That’s not to let Ratched, or the system that employs her, off the hook. McMurphy raises his game in rebelling against the system throughout the movie, but the response that they come back with is rather like using nuclear weapons to deal with your mouse problem. The first two-thirds of this movie might fool one into thinking that Ratched is looking out for her patients’ welfare and simply doing her job, but once the horror show begins it is truly horrible.
The film’s two acting Oscars are no surprise: McMurphy is a role that was literally written to receive an Oscar*, and the movie’s chilling climax makes a great case for Ratched as one of the best villains ever put to film. I’d prefer to focus on one of the greatest collections of supporting actors ever gathered on a set. William Redfield (as Harding) had a 35-year Broadway career before filming on this movie even began; Will Sampson (as Chief) was one of the first actors from the famed American Indian Theater Company to move into film. Christopher Lloyd, Danny DeVito, and Vincent Schiavelli are all shockingly young in smaller roles, and Scatman Crothers has a cameo so small that it’s hard to believe you’re seeing him.
They’re all overshadowed by the great character actor Brad Dourif, perhaps best known as the voice of the murderous Chucky doll, in the role of Billy Bibbit. Simply playing “stutterer” on screen without making it look fake is tough enough, as we saw in The King’s Speech. Then Dourif is also tasked with the most achingly sad scene in the film, when Ratched finally and completely rejects the idea that she was ever concerned about her patients’ well-being.
I love Forman’s directing because while it’s completely under control at all times, it still manages to evoke mental illness. The majority of the film, the camera is still and distant, as though adopting the point of view of one of the catatonic patients in the background. But when a patient starts to lose control of himself, it moves more often as the editing becomes choppier. This is not only the case in scary scenes, either; it also happens when McMurphy’s fishing trip devolves into comedic, utterly harmless chaos.
One way to read the film’s ending is that McMurphy wasn’t crazy, but that the repressive hospital drove him insane. However, I like to read it in such a way that McMurphy is crazy from the beginning, and that the brutal “therapy” on offer can only make him worse. Part of what makes this film so great is that leaves room for both interpretations, and many more as well.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*The novel by Ken Kesey is actually written from the point of view of Chief, a character who doesn’t speak. To make the novel filmable, the screenplay had to be written from McMurphy’s point of view.