Before we dive in, a little housekeeping: This is the 52-Week Movie Challenge as seen in the book “Everyone’s a Critic 52-Week Movie Challenge.” (If you’d like to purchase the book to keep your personal notes of each film, here’s the link, but you can still participate in the challenge either way.) Each week, we’ll take the challenge and share our thoughts. I’ll share mine through these blog posts and occasional videos, and you can share yours in comments on the posts and videos. Oh, also, the book suggests some writing prompts for each week, but true to PFB fashion, I’m going rogue and creating my own format. Alrighty. Let’s get to it!
Milos Forman directs the film adaptation of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The film stars Jack Nicholson as Randall McMurphy (a role that earned him his third straight Best Actor Oscar Nomination and the win), as a prison inmate whose behavior at the “work farm” earned him a trip to the local mental facility for evaluation. While there, he starts to empower his fellow committees to resist the institution’s rules, a plan that naturally puts him at odds with head nurse, Miss Ratched (portrayed by Louise Fletcher who also garnered a Best Actress Nomination for her performance). The film is largely believed to be one of the greatest films of all time. Hence, why we chose it for week 1!
The first thing you’ll notice when you begin is that this film has all of the hallmarks of a great movie: superb acting, intriguing score, stylish cinematography, creative and realistic dialogue, strong characters, and much more. Now, there are more ingredients in the recipe for “All-time Great Movie,” but it is a strong start and one that validates the hype you’ve undoubtedly heard.
What’s not immediately apparent, however, is the purpose of the film. And it is that unknowing feeling that makes the first two-thirds or so of the movie completely gripping. Each scene is like a non-sequitur, entirely interesting by its own merit but unclear in its contribution to the larger plot. With that in mind and whether intentional or not, one of my favorite early visual cues is that Randall McMurphy (Nicholson) carries a deck of cards with him everywhere he goes. It is a perfect reminder that the film is playing sleight of hand with its audience, attempting to get them to focus on distractors before ultimately revealing “the trick” or, in this case, the purpose of the film. There is a literary medium called “novel-in-stories” in which a series of loosely interconnected stories are collected in novel form to to drive home a central theme or through-line. This movie definitely had a novel-in-stories vibe through that first section.
The through-line in this instance would have to be this theme of the oppressed vs. the oppressors. With the story being set in the early 1960s, the historical context brings into focus why this theme would have been important at the time the novel was written and, frankly, even still to this day. We see the oppressed vs. oppressor theme manifest itself in a number of ways in the film.
First, when Randall “Mac” McMurphy arrives at the prison, he goes person to person and begins to empower them. Mac empowers Cheswick to question the system, he teaches Chief to play basketball, and helps Billy Bibbit get his confidence back with women. At one point, Mac even busts the whole ward out for an excursion where he steals a boat for them to go fishing. He says to one of them after handing him a fishing pole, “You’re not an idiot. Huh! You’re not a goddamn looney now, boy. You’re a fisherman!”, a line that acts as the perfect microcosm for Mac’s relationship with these men. He always treated each of them as people rather than crazy people.
Next, and perhaps the most obvious instance of the oppressed vs. oppressor theme, is Chief Bromden. Chief is a Native American committee who is described as deaf and dumb. After spending time with McMurphy, however, Chief reveals that he can indeed hear and speak, something none of the experts in the mental hospital has been able to uncover. This revelation elevates McMurphy to a status of “voice of the oppressed” as he is able to literally provide Chief (who as a Native American is a symbol of systemic oppression) with a voice.
Finally, our oppressed vs. oppressor theme comes into full focus at the climax of the film. McMurphy has invited some prostitutes to the mental hospital to enjoy a party with the ward. The party ends with the men encouraging Billy Bibbit to sleep with Candy. Billy does and is discovered the following morning by none other than Miss Ratched, our stone-cold symbol of oppression. Miss Ratched punishes Billy by sending him to the doctor’s office and telling him she will tell his mother what he had been up to. Suddenly, the new-found confidence that Billy gained (albeit through less than moral means) with Mac’s help disintegrated and Billy decides to end his life in the doctor’s office. This incident causes Mac (the voice of the oppressed) to snap and attack Miss Ratched (the oppressor) as our theme manifests in physical confrontation. Appropriately, oppression prevails and Mac ends up presumably lobotomized.
When you break it down that way, our lone theme feels very powerful, and perhaps it is. While watching the film though, I found myself distracted by the themes and more interested in the narrative itself. Maybe it was the fact that I was waiting for that big “all-time great movie” moment or because I was overthinking it altogether. I’m not sure. One thing is for certain though, you should always sleep on it before collecting your thoughts on a movie. Initial reactions are not to be trusted.
I cannot think of a better way to kick off the 52-Week Movie Challenge. This film definitely lives up to the hype and I cannot wait to ride this wave into Week 2, which is (drumroll please) “A Movie ‘Classic.'” For our movie “classic,” I’ve chosen ‘Casablanca.’ ‘Casablanca’ is the definition of “classic” and, having not seen the movie myself. this seems like the perfect time to give it a whirl. The film is available on HBO Max or you can rent on demand. Check it out and join me next week for another edition of the 52-Week Movie Challenge.
Kernel Score: 9.5/10
P.S. The fishing scene was apparently shot in Depoe Bay, Oregon. When I lived in Oregon, my wife and in-laws went whale watching out of that very harbor! We recognized it immediately and turned into the living embodiment of this Leonardo DiCaprio meme. Here’s the picture for proof (not the bridge in the background).
What did you think of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?’ Drop us a comment below and please consider subscribing to our blog for more posts like this!