A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 591 – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – October 12th, 2011

One of the benefits of doing this project is that it forces me to watch some things that I’ve meant to watch for ages and ages – classics and cultural touchstones and the sorts of things that get made part of montages of great movies – and just never gotten around to. Not that I’m going to go out of my way to obtain and watch something I have no interest in. I can honestly say I’ve never been the least bit interested in seeing at least half of the Academy Award winners for Best Picture. But this one? This one I’d been meaning to see for ages. It’s just not a casual sort of thing you pop in for fun. It’s a long movie and a heavy movie and I knew that. So while I’d seen probably two thirds of it in bits and pieces prior to this project, I’d never seen it all.

I know that this movie is based on a book by Ken Kesey, written about his experiences and things he’d witnessed. The thing is, that sets an immediate bias from the narrator. I honestly don’t know if it’s possible to have a non-biased account of life in a psychiatric hospital. Impartial observers won’t have the experience of being a patient or the perspective of a medical professional. Patients are often in altered mental states either due to their conditions or due to the medications they’re on. Medical professionals are ostensibly doing what they’re doing in the hopes that what they’re doing will help. Indeed, according to the trivia for this movie, Louise Fletcher got the part of Nurse Ratched because she was able to portray the character not as malicious, but as genuinely believing that what she was doing was for the best. Treatments once considered state-of-the-art, things that were assumed to cause more good than harm, are now seen as barbaric. Mental illness and the stigma it carries are such difficult subjects to address that I don’t believe any account of it can be labeled true or false. So this movie is difficult for me to address. I can’t really see it as a thoroughly accurate portrayal of this sort of place and time, but I can’t say it’s inaccurate either. Were we to watch Girl, Interrupted I’d have something similar to say. I think that’s just the nature of it.

I had all of that in mind while watching this movie. I don’t sympathize with Nurse Ratched really, but the nature of her character makes me pity her. She starts out so assured that what she’s doing is best and for the good of her patients. That the things she does are helping them, or at least pacifying them. And that’s just not the case. Not for everyone, obviously, or the movie wouldn’t be what it is. I lose any pity for her, on the other hand, when by the end of the movie, even in the face of how badly her actions and words have affected the patients in her care, she remains firm in her righteousness. Clearly it wasn’t that she did anything wrong. It’s that the patients were just that misguided. That troubled. That, well, insane.

Because this is a classic, I don’t know just how necessary it is for me to go over the plot. Even before I’d seen more than a couple of clips from it, I knew the basic story. An ostensibly sane man is involuntarily committed to a mental institution and forms bonds with the patients before eventually snapping and ending up lobotomized, due to the evil nurse who runs the ward he’s on. That’s how I had heard it described anyhow, so it’s what I was expecting. Now, I should have known a little better, because while that’s quite the story, the actual movie is a good deal more nuanced. Which I was glad of. It makes for a much more interesting movie with a much more interesting main character and a much more interesting villain and a much more interesting story for all the characters involved.

For one, the main character – McMurphy – isn’t just a wrongly-hospitalized sane man. He’s a prisoner claiming to be insane in order to be moved from the nearby jail to what he seems to think will be a far cushier place to do his time. So honestly? I don’t feel all that terrible that he ends up in the hospital. He assumed it would be an easy ride and he’s fairly clear about the crimes he committed. Rape, assault, disorderly conduct, and sure, he has excuses and thinks they weren’t really worth getting locked up for. After all, who wants to get caught and locked up? Up until midway through the movie it’s actually never stated flat out whether or not he is mentally ill or just faking. Only when he learns that as a criminal he can be indefinitely committed for a longer time span than his jail sentence does he make it known that he really was doing it for the easier time. And by then it’s too late. But it does raise the question of just how much he’s faking and how much the hospital administration – particularly Nurse Ratched – are willing to see non-mentally ill behavior as mentally ill simply because the person doing it is in a hospital setting. And if that seems odd, take a look at the Rosenhan Experiment where people pretended to be insane to look into diagnostic habits and institutionalisation. That study was done two years before this movie came out.

Then there is the rest of the cast. McMurphy’s presence seems to have an effect on about half the patients around him. Some of the other men just don’t seem to be aware of much of anyone else around them, or if they’re aware they don’t care to let it be known. The rest, however, are responsive enough for McMurphy to interact with them. And he does, starting card games where he cheats them out of their cigarettes and getting basketball games going. It’s never stated specifically why most of them are at the hospital, though it’s revealed later on that only a couple are there involuntarily, and their various diagnoses aren’t really the point. The point is that fully half the men there don’t really want the ward to be the way it is, but as patients under such a strong personality as Nurse Ratched, have never spoken up about it. Until McMurphy shows up and starts making waves. On one hand, the other patients clearly have a fantastic time with him. He breaks them out to go fishing, he advocates for them on the subject of their cigarettes and the music played on the ward, and he throws them a party with alcohol and a couple of women. On the other hand, I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea that he’s stepping in and saying he knows best when the villain has been doing much the same thing, just with a different idea of what “best” is. I’m curious about the book largely because I know it’s not told from McMurphy’s point of view and I think the shift in focus might mitigate the “meet the old boss, same as the new boss” feeling I got.

One thing is for certain, and that is that the movie ends with two different tragedies. First one of the patients commits suicide. Nurse Ratched’s hateful use of shame as a means of subduing her patients is definitely part of the impetus for it and it made me terribly sad to watch. Second is what’s done to McMurphy, who might well have been faking and might well have been a criminal, but certainly didn’t deserve to have his entire self permanently altered because of that. The ending definitely does beg for more from Chief Bromden, who is the narrator of the book but who has very few lines in the movie even though he is a key character. Really, given that, I’m impressed that the story comes across as well as it does, though I can’t speak to how it is as a literary adaptation. Much of that, I believe, comes from the cast, who are all fantastic. There are some very familiar faces here, including Christopher Lloyd, Vincent Schiavelli and Danny DeVito, but the standout for me was Brad Dourif as the young Billy Bibbit. Apparently this was his official screen debut, and it is quite a part to begin with. I know Jack Nicholson gets all the glory for McMurphy, but for me, Dourif made the movie. If he hadn’t sold me on his part, the emotional impact of the movie would have been so lessened to me that I don’t know if the rest of it would have worked as well. So, cheers to Dourif. I’m sure it was a difficult part to play in a fascinating and weird movie, but he did it well.

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October 12, 2011 - Posted by | daily reviews | ,

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