Cynicism in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is, in my opinion, the best anti-establishment film ever made. It is so successful at contrasting the pervading, societal logic (embodied by Nurse Ratched) and the happy-go-lucky free spirit of R.P. McMurphy that, right from the beginning, it is obvious the two characters will be at odds with one another. Nicholson’s McMurphy is able to “socialize” this misfits through unconventional methods such as gambling and basketball. Despite the fact that he is achieved what the institution has failed the do, Nurse Ratched resents him for his rash, untested behavior, and his self-interested motives. I believe the film is successful at turning conventional wisdom about society’s motives on its head, as we come to regard Nurse Ratched as the spawn of Satan, and the anarchist McMurphy an angel. That is not to say that McMurphy’s rule-bending is necessarily healthy; rather, it serves as a reminded that those who so often take the moral high ground of societal norms are just as ill-equipped to pass judgment as those who shirk society’s rules and mores.

This clip, like most Nicholson clips, reminds me of the Biskind article What Made us Right? in its opposition to conventional wisdom. It is also reminiscent of Sklar’s Nadir and Revival for similar reasons. Cuckoo’s Nest takes place in the early 1960’s, a time recognized by both scholars as a time of conformity in the movies as well as in real life. Just as directors were afraid to ceed too much control to their directors (especially new directors like Hopper or Scorcese) so too, were medical professionals wary of new-age treatments, or of treating the mentally-ill as anything remotely human. Louise Fletcher is fantastic as Nurse Ratched! Every thing about her character seems reserved, wary. The way she talks to the patients like children; the way she crosses her legs to show that she is a lady, and the authority. Everything about her reminds the audience that she is all business, and- more importantly- she is afraid of change.

Cuckoo’s Nest provides false nostalgia for the tranquil early 60’s as a device to demonize the pervading wisdom of that time. Through this great mix of false nostalgia and cynicism, it crafts a story that is amusing and remarkably deep. Jack Nicholson’s crazy eyes and wild gestures toy suggest that he is in the wrong, but many times, they foil the rigidity, and insanity of the establishment his character is so vehemently opposed to. Nicholson always seems a little crazy, which is why he is the perfect actor for this role, or really any role that challenges societal norms.

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One response to “Cynicism in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

  1. I completely agree with your first sentence stating that this is the best anti-establishment film ever made. It is definitely Nicholson’s performance above all, that allow you to connect far more with him than you do Fletcher. Along with Nostalgia though, I think I definitely get a stronger cynical feel from the film. The whole idea of the mental institution they are ‘trapped’ in, as well as the famous pillow scene with Nicholson at the end, create many bitter and cynical views. It is a tremendous film however, and great post!

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