Thursday, April 7, 2011

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest -- authority and control

Director: Milos Forman, 1975. (R)

Only three films have ever won the grand slam of Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was the second one, after Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934), and before Jonathan Demme's The Silence of the Lambs (1991). And it deserves the honors.

The film opens and closes with a long, almost idyllic view of a mountain scene, while a haunting native American tune plays in the background. Unlike Ken Kesey's book from which the story is taken, the main character is not Chief Bromden, even though the opening seems to suggest this. Instead, Forman chooses to film the tale from the perspective of Randall P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson).

McMurphy is a wild, full-of-life, fights-too-much criminal who wants to get out of his prison term by pretending to be mad. Lazy, he desires avoid the work detail and he gets his wish when he is transferred to a mental institution for observation and assessment. With no work, just daily group counselling sessions, he thinks he is on easy street. But he doesn't count on Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher).

As he enters the ward, he is the only patient not wearing hospital clothes. He is cast as the outsider, come to save them (and him) from the authorities. His fellow "inmates" separate into two groups: those who really are out of it, not knowing where they are, and those who have some hope of positive change, of being helped, even cured. This latter group are quietly playing poker when he arrives, and he immediately joins them, seeking to take control.

Control is one of the main themes. An early scene highlights Nurse Ratched's icy stare-down with McMurphy. No words are spoken, but it is clear that a line has been drawn and a gauntlet has been thrown. It is her ward, and she will stop at nothing, never raising her voice or losing her cool, to ensure McMurphy remains in his place as a patient.

Nurse Ratched is the authority in the ward, but her approach symbolizes authority for authority's sake. She apparently desires to see the patients progress but only in her way. Control is like that. It becomes my way or the highway. And when faced with a different idea, such control refuses to acknowledge it.

In life, God is the authority (2 Sam. 7:22), although many refute this authority, either denying his existence or ignoring his presence and commands. We are like the inmates in this earthly asylum, playing cards while the world turns. Yet, unlike Nurse Ratched, God does not stand apart forcing us to take pills to medicate us into passivity. He is more like McMurphy, coming down to be with us, even one of us (Phil. 2:7-8), full of zest and life (Jn. 10:10). We can choose to retain our own control, living under our own sovereignty; we can choose to follow Satan's rule (2 Cor. 4:4), allowing him, like Nurse Ratched, to feed us and own us. Or we can follow the Savior, Jesus, the one who challenges the world's rules, and offers us a fresh chance at life.

The film is filled with great acting. Jack Nicholson won the first of his three Oscars for his role as McMurphy here and employs his characteristic maniacal grin to excellent effect. Fletcher is award-worthy as the ice-maiden nurse. Danny DeVito plays Martini, one of the patients, while three others are played by actors in their debut roles: Christopher Lloyd (later famous as Doc in the Back to the Future trilogy) plays Taber, the loud, inciting patient, while Brad Dourif (Grima Wormtongue in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) gives a nuanced Oscar-nominated performance as Billy Bibbit, the shy, stuttering man-child. And there is Will Sampson, the Oregon park ranger who was cast as Chief Bromden, the apparently deaf-mute Indian, because he was the only native American who matched the size needed. He went on from this screen debut to feature in other films, including Clint Eastwood's The Outlaw Josey Wales.

As McMurphy worms his way into the life of the ward, he starts to infuse life and hope into the patients. When he breaks out of the hospital, steals the bus and takes the patients on a deep-sea fishing trip (filmed at Depoe Bay in Oregon), he offers them a view of their own humanity that Nurse Ratched and the doctors are destroying. Though he knows they will be recaptured, nevertheless this hour of freedom is worth the price he must pay.

In his own twisted way, McMurphy is helping these patients to change for the better. They are all, including the silent Chief, moved for the better because of him. But Nurse Ratched cannot accept this and will not admit such improvement. To do so would be to admit defeat. In the film's most emotional scene, Billy's progress is evident both physically and in his elocution. But in a cruel and cutting manner, Nurse Ratched puts him in his place, leaving him worse off than before.

This scene highlights the interlinkage between change and control. When change comes through someone else's control, that change is refuted, even reversed. Ratched cannot accept McMurphy's results because she will not accept his methods. We must be careful that we are not like her. When we see positive change in others resulting from different methods than our own, we should seek God's counsel rather than give our own counsel. Seeking the improvement of another is better than seeking the following of our ways. Ultimately such improvement will come in God's time under his control and will. When we push for it to be our way, we are really pushing for our own control, placing ourselves above God.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest pulls back the curtains on the way mental patients were treated in the 1960s. Medicated to ensure compliance, if that did not work they were given electric shock treatment. If this failed, the final treatment was lobotomy, the removal of part of the brain, often resulting in a vegetative state.

The authenticity of the film's story comes from Kesey's experiences while working in the Veteran's Administration Hospital in Palo Alto California, while the veracity of the location comes from the movie being shot at the Oregon State Mental Hospital at Damasch. Some of the actual patients were used as extras and the head of the hospital, Dr. Dean Brooks, has a cameo as Dr. Spivey, the head of the hospital.

A key scene underscores the final theme of the film. In the tub room, McMurphy accepts wagers on if he can throw the water faucet that is cemented to the floor out of the window. As he strains to lift it, his neck tendons standing out and the sweat running down his face, he fails. He walks away commenting, "But I tried, didn't I? At least I did that." And he foreshadows the final scene of the film.

Too often we are like McMurphy's spectators, watching and wagering, but not trying. Life is meant to be lived, not viewed. We must try even if we might fail. It is often in our failures that we learn the most. God did not intend for us to be comfortable, cocooned in our medicated lifestyles. He wants us to take risk, to try things, ultimately realizing that it is only in him and in his strength (Phil. 4:13) that we can accomplish great things, like tossing the water faucet. Have you settled for too little out of life? Or are you willing to try, even it means failing?

Copyright ©2011, Martin Baggs

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