Or, The AFI List Project #33: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Milos Forman may be one of the most obscure of all our directors: despite a career stretching from 1965 to today (his next film, The Ghosts of Munich, is expected in 2012), he has made only ten movies and is one of the great examples of the ‘oh, didn’t he direct…’ school. (Other notable members: Peter Weir, Wolfgang Petersen.) Yet he is also arguably one of our greatest filmmakers. He made two highly-acclaimed and culturally significant movies, Hair and The People vs. Larry Flint, in addition to two of the undisputed cinematic masterpieces of the twentieth century in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Amadeus. Those films, however, are more highly regarded than the man who made them.
Whatever the reasons for that, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is certainly deserving of all the praise that it receives: it’s one of only a very few movies about mental illness that successfully avoids turning mental illness into a gimmick, and it turns out that its setting in a mental hospital is, somehow surprisingly, an ideal laboratory for making a film about power. Why surprising? Well, I suppose because it takes advantage of our prejudices as an audience: it’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that, because these characters are in the loony bin, they really need to have someone else taking care of them and telling them what to do. Not to take anything away from The Shawshank Redemption, but when we see prison guards abusing prisoners in that movie, it is – like too many movies set in prisons – driving home a point we have already seen so many times before. Cuckoo’s Nest, by contrast, is more of a challenge. Of course, we’ve all heard countless times about how the mentally ill were mistreated in the days before their ailments were understood to be what they were, but the subtle dynamics of power between Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) and McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) are a different kind of battle, and one uniquely suited to the film’s setting.
What really got me about the movie, though, was its understanding of the cinematic imperative of change in its characters. It is a commonplace of the creation of stories that your characters must change over the course of whatever story you are telling: that audiences will never care about a character who stays static over the course of a movie. (On a side note, this was the great sin of The Fighter, David O. Russell’s boxing flick released last year: Mark Wahlberg’s was the only character who had no noticeable character change from beginning to end.) Usually, this takes the form of a character struggling with some concept or skill, not being able to overcome, going through the various obstacles presented to him or her, and then finally breaking through in an ‘aha!’ moment in the climax. You know the sort: Luke Skywalker using the Force to guide his missiles down the shaft in Star Wars is an obvious example, as is Batman’s newfound resolution to become ‘whatever Gotham needs me to be’ at the end of The Dark Knight. For a less modern example, look no further than The Grapes of Wrath, which I wrote about a couple of months ago. In that movie, Tom Joad’s change comes when he breaks through and – basically – becomes a communist.
I don’t want to give too much away about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but it’s probably the first movie I’ve ever seen with a more realistic and honest understanding of change. For one, it rejects the idea of change that these other films represent – what we may term an ‘serpentine’ view of change, because it has characters who have had enough happen shedding their previous selves in the way a snake might shed its skin. There is a moment, in Cuckoo’s Nest, where it appears that this will happen – and then we find that the weight of history is too much, that change is not so easy. That moment is depressing, but also remarkably true. Moments and events can affect the lives of characters, just as they can affect us; but moments must be reinforced and cultivated and nurtured to truly change who a person or character is.
That kind of change – a truer vision of change, I would argue – forms an integral part of the story of another character in Cuckoo’s Nest, and culminates in a scene that somehow accomplishes the near-impossible task of being triumphant at the same moment that it is impossibly sad.
Intellectually, then, this treatment of change is impressive and rarely seen, a major accomplishment by Forman. But the more important fact is this: that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a genuinely moving film, and there are very few of those.