Miloš Forman | 134 mins | download (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R
By many accounts this is the greatest film I’d never seen (hence it being this year’s pick for #100). How are you meant to go about approaching something like that? Probably by not thinking about it too much. I mean, something will always be “the greatest you’ve never seen”, even if you dedicate yourself to watching great movies and the “greatest you’ve never seen” is something pretty low on the list… at which point I guess it stops mattering.
Anyway, this acclaimed drama — one of only three films to win the “Big Five” Oscars — follows Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), a prisoner who’s claiming to be mentally ill in order to avoid hard labour, as he’s sent to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation. His ward is run by the firm hand of Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who subtly controls and oppresses the other inmates (who include early appearances by Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, and Brad Dourif). With his antiauthoritarian nature, McMurphy sets out to usurp her control… with ultimately disastrous consequences.
Cuckoo’s Nest is very ’70s in its bleakness; also in being about someone sticking it to The Man, and The Man winning. We often conflate such qualities with realism — “it’s not all happy, it must be more like real life” — but I wonder if Cuckoo’s Nest is actually too on the nose as an indictment of the system. McMurphy is a highly disruptive influence, which in reality would surely be a problem, but he’s seen to bring the other inmates a joy they previously hadn’t known. His actions give one, Billy Bibbit, confidence and cure him of his stutter — until Ratched reasserts control, his stutter returns, and… worse happens.
Hollywood is notorious for adapting novels by grafting on happier endings, but here they did the opposite, removing even the glimmers of justice that the novel offers. In the book (according to Wikipedia), when McMurphy strangles Ratched he also exposes her breasts, humiliating her in front of the inmates; when she returns to work, her voice — her main instrument of control — is gone, and many of the inmates have either chosen to leave or have been transferred away. Conversely, in the film there is no humiliation, and we explicitly see that she still has her voice and that all the men are still there. Of course, McMurphy’s ultimate end isn’t cheery in either version. It’s almost like the anti-Shawshank in its hope-less ending. While the cynical part of me thinks this is more realistic, I do like a bit of optimism, a bit of victory, a bit of justice for the real perpetrators.
Even aside from the ending, I don’t think the film is as focused as it could or should be. I’m not asking to be handheld through it all, but at times it meanders. The best qualities lie in the acting. Nicholson and Fletcher won the Oscars, and both are very good — Nicholson with his familiar crooked charm, Fletcher despicable as the everyday megalomaniac — but for me the best performance is Brad Dourif, making his screen debut as the stuttering, sweet, ultimately tragic Billy Bibbit. He was nominated for an Oscar, but lost to George Burns in The Sunshine Boys (anyone remember that? No, didn’t think so); though he did win the BAFTA, once again proving that we have all the taste.
I’m not quite on board with all the praise Cuckoo’s Nest has received — I think it might be improved by a streamlining of purpose. Either way, it is not an enjoyable movie, though it is perhaps a significant one.