The Filmnomore Movie Blog queries whether Nurse Ratched is the villain she is often made out to be
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was directed by Milos Forman (Hair 1979) and was based on a novel by Ken Kesey published in 1962. As per the poster it did well at the Academy Awards and as a result found its way on my list of films to catch up on. The film follows the events at a mental institution after the arrival of a new ‘inmate’ McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) who has been referred from a Work Farm in order to ascertain if he is mentally ill or just plain lazy. He decides he wants to shake things up and take on the all powerful Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher).
The movie is set up as a them versus us battle for freedom. The mental institution is presented as a prison with barbed wire fences, the daily routine and medication prescribed to keep the inmates under control. McMurphy is the irreverent angel in disguise who decides to take on the regime and free the inmates from their forced captivity. That might be the story the film was trying to tell but that is not how I think it turned out. My view is that McMurphy is a dangerous, selfish man who can’t see beyond his own desire to cause trouble. He appears unable to understand the environment he has found himself in and the reasons for why the routine has been put in place. The patients are unable to cope with the additional freedom McMurphy tries to introduce and while it goes well at first the situation always gets out of control. He doesn’t learn his lesson and despite the first misadventure carries on regardless. As a direct result of the anarchy he creates one man loses his job, another commits suicide and one murders a fellow patient. Hardly a positive outcome.
Nurse Ratched is supposed to be the ‘bad guy’ but I think she understands the patients far better that Nicholson’s character. While some of her actions are portrayed as her attempts to hold onto power and lord it over the others I think she was just trying to manipulated the situation for the protection of her patients. I think the argument can be made that her priority was providing a stable environment to what are clearly some very disturbed minds. While I might disagree with the standard interpretation of the film I really enjoyed it. It has some powerful and disturbing moments and I liked what I saw as a far more complex relationship between Nurse Ratched and McMurphy that I first expected. The duo are supported by a strong ensemble cast that included excellent performances from Brad Dourif, Christopher Lloyd and William Redfield.
In summary I think this film earns the title of ‘classic’ movie on the back of a complex battle of wits between the two protagonists backed up by strong ensemble. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an excellent example of what can be achieved with limited sets and locations relying on nothing more than strong characters and quality acting. My rating 4/5.