One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the third film in the Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection that revolves around a central struggle of the individual against institutionalization.
Like Cool Hand Luke and A Clockwork Orange, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest centers around an anti-hero, R. P. McMurphy, played by the incomparable Jack Nicholson in an Oscar-winning performance. McMurphy’s moral alignment is somewhere between that of the roguish Luke Jackson and the sociopathic Alex DeLarge, but his immense charisma is every bit as potent as theirs.
One of the most important elements of this film is that some of the early scenes are intentionally dull, in order to highlight the soul-destroying drudgery of the mental hospital. As McMurphy becomes more vocal, the scenes get far more lively, but his energy contrasts with the void of the defeated, morose, long-term patients.
Gradually, we get some of the Christ-like themes that were so prominent in Cool Hand Luke, as McMurphy pushes back against a system that robs the patients of their humanity. The difference is Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched, who is a much more nuanced character than the one-dimensional “Man with No Eyes” from Cool Hand Luke.
Nurse Ratched genuinely believes that she’s doing what’s best for these patients, and it’s only when she begins to lose control of them in the presence of new alpha McMurphy that her own fragility and human weaknesses become obvious.
Ultimately, McMurphy’s sacrifice is also more direct than Luke’s. Whereas Luke is killed senselessly at the hands of his tormentors, but inspires his disciples after his death, McMurphy’s sacrifice comes by nearly killing Ratched after she drives Billy Bibbitt (Brad Dourif) to suicide in the wake of his betrayal of McMurphy.
McMurphy does what none of the other patients have the will to do, pushing back against the system in a visceral, violent act of rebellion. Naturally, the system wins—at least in the short run—by lobotomizing McMurphy.
His death, however, is a mercy killing by “Chief” Bromden (Will Sampson), who, as it turns out, is the ultimate recipient of the transformative power that McMurphy’s influence has created throughout the film. In the film’s striking final scene, Bromden finds the literal strength to break out of the institution, running away from the cold, mechanical, oppressive world and into the wilderness, having achieved true freedom.
Fletcher, like Nicholson, won an Oscar for her performance. In fact, the film was only the second movie in history to sweep all of the major Academy Awards, following It Happened One Night (and subsequently matched by Silence of the Lambs).
Perhaps even more than Cool Hand Luke, the supporting cast of Cuckoo’s Nest is a gallery of familiar faces in early roles, including Vincent Schiavelli, Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, Sydney Lassick, and horror and sci-fi mainstay Michael Berryman. They capture a sometimes-confounding, haunting, but always human portrayal of patients with varying degrees of mental illness. There’s also a small-but-memorable turn by Scatman Crothers, as well as several smaller roles played by actual employees or patients at the Oregon State Mental Hospital.
All of these pieces combine to form an impactful, unforgettable film. I have to say, though, that (re-)watching Cuckoo’s Nest so quickly after seeing Cool Hand Luke for the first time may have detracted slightly from the former’s potency. The similar beats of the two films, and the knowledge that Cool Hand Luke released years earlier, made me ponder whether Cuckoo’s Nest could be considered derivative.
In the end, “derivative” is probably too strong of a word, especially since Cool Hand Luke itself thematically borrows quite obviously from the story of Christ, as do so many works of literature or film. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest probably trumps Cool Hand Luke, in fact, in terms of what it says about the nature of freedom in the face of overpowering institutionalization, up to and including the idea that even those of us on the “outside” are actually institutionalized.
We just can’t see the locks and bars.