The fourth in my series of retrospective reviews bearing the oft-derided (if only by me) name "FilmQuest 2012", this time I'm looking at 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest': the Michael Douglas produced, Milos Forman directed, Jack Nicholson starring 1975 drama set within a mental institution. Funny, sad, disturbing and life-affirming in equal measure, 'One Flew' is one of those rare Best Picture Oscar winners that people seem to unanimously agree is genuinely very good. I guess it would have to be: the other nominees that year were 'Barry Lyndon', 'Nashville', 'Dog Day Afternoon' and 'Jaws' (has there been a better year than that in terms of Oscar?).
Douglas, Forman and Nicholson all won golden statuettes in their respective categories (picture, director, actor), as well as the screenwriters (Laurence Hauben and Bo Goldman) and actress Louise Fletcher, for her legendary portrayal of the uncompromising Nurse Ratched. Yet what really caught my eye, as I sat down to watch the film for the first time, was the revelatory performance of one of its few Oscar losers: Brad Dourif as the stuttering, suicidal Billy Bibbet. Dourif's bright-eyed intensity and haunting vulnerability make the ending all the more tragic. If we hadn't just witnessed Dourif's dramatic fall from newly confident euphoria to pathetic, weepy pleading, Nicholson's subsequent attempt to murder Ratched would play as far less sympathetic. As it is, you are - for those few seconds at least - right there with him.
Despite the ultimate, spirit-crushing lobotomy visited upon Nicholson's Randle McMurphy following his strangling of the nurse, one of the really exceptional elements of 'One Flew' is that the institution is not portrayed as malicious for its own sake. Ratched is stern and rigorously enforces her regime - to the detriment of the patients - yet, until the heartless humiliation of Bibbet, her good intentions are never really in question. You get the sense she genuinely believes her methods are the best way bring stability or order to disordered lives. Here (in a refreshing break from the norm) the system, though it medicates patients into docility and uses electro-shock therapy as a punishment, is not depicted as deliberately cruel.
Perhaps (the forced lobotomy of McMurphy aside) Ratched's greatest act of cruelty is subtle and indirect. Though most of her patients are in the hospital voluntarily - and therefore permitted to leave at any time - none of them express even the faintest desire to do so, thanks to her control over them and the relative security it brings. Through her regime Ratched merely seeks to pacify her wards, with little thought of preparing them to reintegrate with society. This horrifies McMurphy who thinks only of freedom. Though clearly a loose cannon, he's not himself mentally ill: he's a criminal who's had himself committed in order to avoid manual labour and serve the rest of his sentence in relative comfort.
This allows him to witness, and experience, the pitfalls of institutionalisation. It is ambiguous whether he fails to escape the night of the illicit party (falling asleep) or simply decides not to - preferring to stay within this new community in which he has become an important member. Either way McMurphy becomes the unwilling victim of a system that seems designed to make people easier to handle, rather than working to enrich their lives. In this respect the hospital is not too dissimilar from the prison Nicholson's character has left behind.