This film completely baffled me. I found it slow and, if not quite boring, certainly not engaging.
The movie stars Jack Nicholson as Randle McMurphy (“Mac”), a newly admitted patient at a mental institution. I spent some time trying to figure out the nature of Mac’s disorder. That he seemed ordinary enough, if something of a wanker, struck me as a bit of narrative misdirection. This isn’t my first rodeo, I know great writing is supposed to deliver the expected in unexpected ways.
Instead, I learned he’s a run of the mill petty criminal faking insanity to weasel his way out of the state pen. Not as interesting as a wacko, but I hold out hope that this is a kind of haunted house story: Mac thinks he’s getting a free lunch, but it turns out he’s in an EVEN WORSE PRISON!
Not really. Mac had several opportunities to get away from his ‘prison’ scott free, a loophole nobody would tolerate in an “all-time great”. It clearly wasn’t actually all that bad of a place; guys were even staying there voluntarily!
Ok, how about Mac as anti-hero? He arrives at the institution a broken soul and, through unlikely bonds formed with society’s outcasts, redeems himself? Cue waterworks.
Wrong again, thanks goodness, though here’s an element of that, too.
In Nurse Ratched (‘Wretched’ with an ‘a’) we have a villain, at least, if a disappointing one. She’s arbitrary and controlling and somewhat Kafka-esque, sure, but not nearly monstrous enough for my taste.
My core annoyance is that the film tickles us with narrative archetype, but never commits. For some, perhaps, this is a virtue of the highest order. For me, I found it frustrating and boring. I was left with little to say.
So I cheated and read some other reviews.
Others saw the film as, among other things, an animal farm-type allegory for soviet repression (Really? Wow, did that message ever age poorly) and… well, this:
But what did the audience, which loved the film so intensely, think it was about? The film is remembered as a comedy about the inmate revolt led by McMurphy, and the fishing trip, the all-night orgy, and his defiance of Nurse Ratched (Fletcher)–but in fact it is about McMurphy’s defeat. One can call it a moral victory, and rejoice in the Chief’s escape, but that is small consolation for McMurphy.
Beware the well-written essay. Read too much Ebert and you’ll start enjoying things not for themselves, but for his interpretation.
Now, judgments about a film are made in a particular social context. I am in today’s, the film was made and watched in the 70s. I’m driven to speculate about what kind of context is necessary for all this praise to make sense.
First, Mac was probably more victim and likable rogue than recidivist white trash milking the system. More Han Solo than Matthew Poncelet (in the first 2/3 of the DMW).
Second, his crimes are obviously meant to be no big deal. Robbery? Ok. But statutory rape? This is pre-Polanski, of course.
Next, Mac’s jarring lack of urgency for getting out becomes less Scary Movie naiivete and more plain ignorance. The WHOLE time, I was thinking ‘lobotomy’ and Mac even JOKED about being zombified by electroshock therapy. Was that nonchalance reasonable in the 60s?
He obviously hasn’t seen all the films, etc I’ve seen since this movie was made.
And therein lies the problem. Maybe this movie is a colossus in AMERICAN CINEMA. Maybe it was the first film to introduce a million tropes that have been ‘done to death’ in the decades since.
If so, there’s no way this film could ever be interesting to me. It’s be like driving around a Model T. A big deal ‘back in the day’? Sure, but it’s safe to say we’ve moved on.