One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is perhaps one of the most visceral depictions of mental illness ever to grace the big screen.
In fact, it was so powerful that it was the second film to win all five major Academy Awards (Best Picture, Actor in Lead Role, Actress in Lead Role, Director, and Screenplay). Yet, the central strength of this excellent film, due for rerelease this month, is the nuanced, hilarious and pathos ridden performance from Jack Nicholson as Randle McMurphy. Not only does Nicholson showcase his trademark penchant for making even execrable characters likeable, he does so in more ways than being just another zany saviour whom miraculously cures the illnesses of the patients.
Nicholson imbues every frame with a laconic wit, teasing and probing the weaknesses and perceived norms of the institution, in which he frequently crosses swords with Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). Much has been made of Fletcher’s performance being ranked within the greatest portrayals of onscreen villainy; her intelligence is that she refuses to be cowed by the demands of her task, such as her watchful protectiveness of her wards. That is not to say that her taunting and bullying of the vulnerable Billy (Brad Dourif) is not an example of the banality of evil in its purest form. However, the fact remains is that Nicholson’s performance acts as a lightning rod for her dark focus, McMurphy flaunts the rules, breaks the internal laws which have been built so assiduously and shatters any sense of calm.
Of note is the scene in which McMurphy is deeply lost in thought, around 2/3 of the way into the film, in which the slowly advancing close-up shot details the crags and haunted expression of this man. The cinematography is particularly powerful in this scene, it offers an intensely profound connection between the audience and McMurphy. Maybe he is not the joker, maybe he is not the undaunted provoker of the authorities, maybe he is a man who has fallen too far out of his depths. This sense of being lost in the sea, being swept under the waves by the currents is something which Nicholson layers into his character’s persona. Ostensibly, no actor, apart from perhaps Tom Hanks in Philadelphia has the power to communicate so deeply with a single look. The renowned film critic Pauline Kael described the film as “the prophetic essence of the whole Vietnam period of revolutionary politics” with McMurphy’s eventual abandonment of hope a key turning point in the film. Actually, not a turning point, simply a sense of a man who has grown tired of fighting against overwhelming odds and seeks simple solace. Whilst the scenes of electro-shock therapy still grate against the senses today, some 40 years later, the depictions of the various mental illnesses present in the film perhaps are too simplistic.
In essence, the film revolves around the idea that being like McMurphy will cure the illnesses of the inmates. Nonetheless, the conversation which McMurphy raises is important for the current context. The movie’s simplistic approach to mental illness is due to the fact it is not about insanity or the solitude that depression or other afflictions bring. McMurphy is free spirit in a closed system. From my critical perspective, the simplistic portrayals are designed to highlight that McMurphy, despite his crimes, can touch these inmates in a way that Nurse Ratched never can. He shows them warmth, he shows them empathy, he is distinctly human towards them. I believe the staying power of his performance is that Nicholson truly embodies the idea that would be echoed 20 years later by Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption, that “some birds aren’t meant to be caged.” The vibrancy of Nicholson’s performance is his kindness. A value which is often overlooked in his performance.
The majority of critics hone in on his portrayal as electrifying, rightly so. Yet, what he gives to these inmates is a sense of hope. Not the hope of complete redemption or a white-saviour style cure for mental illness, this would be churlish and denigrating of mental illness. Rather, in his cracked human way, McMurphy shows Billy, Chief and Martini that people will still treat them with humanity. Whilst, the system of care has thankfully moved beyond the stark corridors and the padded cells depicted in this setting, the central message remains. A message that one must be kind, always. This is what Nicholson achieves, a cleansing figure who in his rebellion, sprite-like non-adherence to rules and brimming smile, strikes a chord. A chord of light in a dark world of muted greys and shades of black.
Get Volume #17 here.