Time for the first entry in my MISS list, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Jack Nicholson makes his first appearance in this series, finally playing a crazy guy. Was this before he got typecast into that role? Either way, I guess I should start by listing what I do know about the movie before actually watching it.
-there’s a creepy mental hospital with a mean nurse lady
-a big Native American dude smashes a window with a chair
That’s it. So I guess any spoilers and parts I write after watching will appear below the cut. Here goes!
So that was… a weird movie. I guess I’ll give a summary, with looks at the characters who stood out to me.
But first, the setting. I’m going to be upfront here and say that I know a fair bit about mental wards. I committed myself to one for a few days a couple years back during a major depressive episode and I have a few very close friends who work as caregivers. The hospital presented here is nothing like that, but of course this movie takes place in the sixties. This is back in the day when janitors were black instead of Mexican, when records were a thing and when people just smoked indoors whenever. I know that throughout history, asylum conditions have been pretty awful.
This one, though. Wow. Neglect and incompetence seems to be the rule here.
Jack Nicholson is taken to a mental hospital. He seems to be a petty, though somewhat violent, criminal who is trying to avoid a harsher sentence with an insanity plea. That is not at all how the insanity defense works, but maybe it was in the sixties. Anyway, his character, McMurphy, is a huge asshole. There’s no two ways about it. He’s racist, sexist, creepy and insensitive. His initial crime was statutory rape and while he says that the girl claimed to be eighteen, he also doesn’t seem to have any regrets as he brags about it in graphic detail.
The first patient McMurphy meets is a huge mute Native American fellow whose name is… Chief. He’s got a last name I didn’t catch, but that makes it seem like his parents actually named him Chief and it’s not just a nickname. The first thing McMurphy does when he meets the Chief is to dance around whooping like those “Red Injun” caricatures from Peter Pan. At this point it’s apparent that McMurphy is the only happy-looking person in the film. The nurses and orderlies look bored and all the residents are depressed. Chief doesn’t seem to actually have any glaring issues besides his deaf-dumb status. I think the movie wants you to think McMurphy is also all there psychologically, but he’s an obvious narcissist with a short temper.
There’s a group chat where this guy who looks like an alternate universe Jeff Foxworthy is talking about his marriage problems and everyone rags on him.
Jeff Foxworthy seems like one of the few likable guys in this film and you can’t help but feel bad for him. I’m not sure why he even went to the hospital, but considering this is the sixties and he has a moustache, I bet he’s gay. Sympathy for his character definitely aged well in the forty-odd years since this movie came out as an interesting contrast to McMurphy’s old-school masculinity.
Christopher Lloyd is in this movie too. He plays crazy well. There’s not much to say except it’s weird to see Christopher Lloyd with short hair.
Oh, and lastly, there’s a cute young guy with floofy hair named Billy. Billy stutters and has obvious nervous tics and I just wish he had proper care instead of being in this movie because he’s a sweetheart.
The ward actually seems to have a lot to do. There’s an outdoors area where the men play basketball and a pool area that seems like the absolute worst idea ever. Pro tip: if you’re treating suicidal people don’t give them access to the means to kill themselves. These guys have access to glass, pools of water, matches for their cigarettes, hard metal beds, basically all the kind of stuff you want to keep away from people who are terrified that they might kill themselves. When I went in a few years back, I wasn’t allowed to have shoes with laces. That makes a lot of sense. But then again, it was the sixties.
They also have a school bus that is never really explained. McMurphy hijacks it because the caregivers are too incompetent to even see a guy climbing a fence. He picks up a hooker with money that he somehow has for no reason then rents a fishing boat with the same money. McMurphy seems as neglectful and incompetent as the hospital staff, though, because he puts this guy Cheswick in charge of steering and literally every scene where Cheswick does something in this film ends with him having an anxiety attack and a nervous breakdown. You see this man trying to steer this boat like he was told and it’s a new experience on a stressful day and I think even the best of us would be anxious to be left alone at the helm.
The gang gets back fine, though, carrying a couple of big fish as they are escorted back to the ward. McMurphy’s actions seem to have no consequences, oddly enough.
About two-thirds of the way through the movie, everything falls apart. Nurse Ratched, who is in charge and has weird bifurcated hair, is not so much incompetent as she is mean. By that I mean that she yells a lot I wouldn’t give her power over a bunch of mental patients, but she does fine or being the only person on the staff who seems to care and McMurphy keeps calling her names, sexually harassing her and trolling around like a twelve year old. . After watching the whole film, I think she was supposed to be the villain of the piece, but I honestly don’t think she’s that bad. The only truly awful thing she does is later in the film and it’s more tragic than anything else.
Anyway, Cheswick has another panic attack after McMurphy riles everyone up again and suddenly there’s a minor riot going on. McMurphy punches a bunch of people and the Chief uses his super strength to keep the orderlies from doing their job and subduing him. The three get in trouble and Cheswick and McMurphy get electroshock therapy. Unlike in real life, where electric therapy can be extremely useful when not trying to convert bisexual rock gods, the electroshock in this movie seems more like a punishment or a torture. I have no idea why the filmmakers went with that, and I’m guessing it didn’t help viewers whose problems could’ve been solved with what was now seen as a torture device.
The big reveal that comes out of this is that the Chief was faking his whole deaf-dumb thing. I have to admit I didn’t see this coming and it was almost as much of a surprise as when I realized that hey is that Danny Devito? Yeah, it took most of the movie for me to recognize him. Again, it’s a forty year-old film. Cut me some slack.
Anyway from here on out Nurse Ratched is way stricter. McMurphy doesn’t seem to have learned the first rule of getting through tough situations- that is, to keep your head down and power through it. By this point he has seen firsthand that this is exactly what the Chief has been doing, but I guess our main character is just compulsively aggressive. Hey, that seems like something that could be fixed with competent and cooperative behavioral therapy!
Instead, McMurphy bribes one of the orderlies to let him bring booze and hookers into the ward one night. Because the only staff member who doesn’t seem to actively hate their patients is that nurse who never talks and whose name I never caught, the orderly is totally cool with it. Alcohol and no supervision is a great thing to give to a bunch of depressives and otherwise disturbed folks, right? Right? McMurphy is clearly supposed to be some sort of rebellious anti-hero at this point, but he sure seems more anti than hero.
McMurphy notices that Billy, the cute floofy-haired one, has been eyeing the prostitute they went fishing with. He pressures Billy into having sex with her, eventually dragging him in on a wheelchair. Billy is clearly uncomfortable. Sure, maybe getting out of his shell would be a good for the poor guy, the one who we’ve seen struggle through anxiety and who Ratched yells at almost as much as Cheswick. But even if this wasn’t a person who has obvious, diagnosed issues with intimacy and women in general, it would never be okay to force him into a room with a woman who has been paid to bang him. Billy is the most sympathetic person in this movie and I hate to see him bullied by his peers in what is supposed to be a safe place.
McMurphy does get some props here. His original plan was to escape with his friends from the outside after the party, but instead he chooses to stay and wait for Billy and his girl to be finished. This proves to be his downfall as he dozes off.
Nurse Ratched and all of the non-bribed orderlies are shocked at the detritus of the last night and rightfully so. The staff discovers Billy sleeping in another room with the prostitute. This brings us to the first actual evil thing that the villain does in this film. Ratched goes all out chastising Billy. She threatens to tell his mother, with whom she is good friends, all about how he’s done such a shameful thing. Obviously, this is the last thing Billy needs. All the pressure and guilt from his mother probably contributed to his psychosis in the first place! Billy breaks down sobbing as the nurse turns her anger on the real culprit, McMurphy.
But while everyone was busy with that, Billy runs off, breaks a piece of glass that shouldn’t be so easily found in a mental ward in the first place, and commits suicide. It’s a tragic, bloody scene and the movie plays it well.
McMurphy is pissed. Sure, he set Billy up to have his breakdown, but Nurse Ratched, the one who should know better, was the final straw. Enraged, McMurphy nearly chokes the nurse to death before being restrained.
Late one night, an unspecified amount of time later, the Chief wakes up in a fit of excitement. Rather than being transferred away forever or euthanized, McMurphy has been returned to his old ward! However, the Chief’s mood turns sour as he sees that his friend has been lobotomized. McMurphy appears to be completely brain-dead, or at least the Chief thinks so, because he decides that the best thing to do is mercy kill via pillow-smothering. This probably wasn’t the most rational thing to do to a guy who might’ve just been woozy from anesthesia or something, and if anybody should know about living with mental disabilities it’s a man in a psychological hospital, but I suppose we can understand that the Chief isn’t really thinking rationally.
We finally come to the famous scene. In a manner invoking an earlier scene where McMurphy bragged he could lift a water fountain that was attached to the ground, the Chief struggles and actually detaches the same fountain.
Now may not be the best time to ask, but how is the Chief so strong? He is a big guy, but he’s obviously been in the ward for quite a while and he doesn’t seem to do any physical activity at all.
Anyway, he throws the fountain through the window and runs away. The credits roll and you can’t help but wonder what happened to the Chief. He’s an escaped mental patient with a unique appearance who just killed a former friend. I’m guessing the aftermath wasn’t pretty.
Now that my overly long summary is finished, I’d like to sandwich in some further thoughts about the movie. First of all, despite all of my gripes, the movie was extremely well done. Every actor did an amazing job and even the characters I didn’t care for were well-rounded. Sure, McMurphy is awful, but his arrogant demeanor and faux-innocent, everyone’s-out-to-get-me attitude is disturbingly similar to some of the actual residents I’ve met and heard about. I even got a touch of unreliable narrator from how Nurse Ratched is depicted as foul and abusive when most of the time she’s just trying to hold together a crumbling institution. The only character who didn’t seem all that deep, strangely enough, was the Chief. We never learn why he has been committed in the first place and beyond his emotional attachment to the main character there really isn’t much to him.
This brings me to my main gripe in the film. It’s not the terrible conditions of mental health care presented because I’m sure more of that was accurate than I’m comfortable with, being the sixties. It’s the depiction of race and gender. This movie has a weird underlying message that I didn’t even think was a thing back then: the conspiracy of the disenfranchised white male. Not to get too political, but you see it even today. The more progress made in civil rights, the more that the privileged feel oppressed.
All of the residents in this movie are white save for the Chief, and his name is Chief for crying out loud. The orderlies and security are all black men who are depicted as lazy and corrupt. There are four women in this movie. One of them gets no lines, two of them are prostitutes with little-to-no characterization and the last one is Nurse Ratched. I love female villains. I want there to be more female villains in fiction, especially when they are portrayed as actual threats. Nurse Ratched, however, is just a stereotypical bitch. She is rude for no reason and a hate sink for the main character. All of that sends the underlying message that men, especially white men, are being subjugated by shrill feminine forces. Or maybe I’m reading too far into it, but given that the sixties were a massive back-and-forth of ideologies, it seems like a valid reading.
Overall, however, the movie is great. The story is exciting and bizarre and the acting is incredible. The soundtrack works wonders with special mention being merited for the opening and ending songs. The entire ending scene is depicted almost without words but rather than being distracting, the music just carries your emotions exactly where they’re intended to go. The film is over two hours long, but that just builds tension for the long emotional climax. This is exactly the sort of movie I set out to see with this project. Watch it if you haven’t.
Pingback: Movies I Should’ve Seen- New Feature! | Robin Garcia
I liked that movie, although I never went as deep in my analysis. True, the sixties were a horrible period in mental health and many things were done improperly. I don’t like it when we put our era of ideals and put them in other periods of history
@Fernando I know what you mean- I’m pretty sure C.S. Lewis popularized the idea that we shouldn’t hold old stuff to modern standards. Still, I’m pretty sure a lot of McMurphy’s old-school traditional attitude was intended as somewhat reactionary in an era of increasing feminism and civil rights.