A More Tender Look at the Downtrodden

Image retrieved from TMDb

Lately I’ve been trying to make my way through films on the IMDb Top 250 which I have not seen. For example, within the last few months, I have been able to check The Godfather: Part II, Schindler’s List, and Casablanca off of my list of shame. And the only reason they were on the list of “shame” was because of their reputation, which is largely enhanced by IMDb. So as soon as I saw the number 18 film, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, was added to Netflix, I immediately hopped on my chance to watch the Jack Nicholson classic.

When I’m watching a movie based on its reputation, director, or stars, I oftentimes don’t know much of what the movie is about. I like to go in as blind as possible and have a brand new experience with an older film. So of course this is what I did with Cuckoo’s Nest

Simply based on the poster, I did not expect the film to be so heavy. I only ever gave the poster a cursory glance to see Nicholson smiling (but I missed that it is actually him in front of a chain-linked fence looking longingly at a lock), so I thought it would be something lighthearted and cheerful. But if you have seen the movie, then you know just how wrong I was about this! 

I was immediately struck by Cuckoo’s Nest’s rough around the edges feel. R.P. McMurphy, or Mac (Nicholson), is an unfiltered criminal who is admitted to a mental institution under the guise of insanity. He initially thinks he will have to stay just a couple of weeks in the institution, but comes to find his being discharged is up to the discretion of the doctors and nurses. Upon learning this, Mac devises a plan to escape, but not without the help of his fellow patients.

It didn’t take long for me to realize this movie must have influenced Joker. And I mean the movie directed by Todd Phillips, not the film where Nicholson himself spreads paint on museum walls and asks Bruce Wayne if he’s ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight. But after a bit of digging, I found it on IndieWire’s 17 Movies to Watch Before ‘Joker’ article, to confirm my suspicions. 

Now I’m not a fan of Joker. I think it is certainly trying to say something about a broken system with corrupt leaders, but gets too lost in the weeds along the way. Cuckoo’s Nest, though, does almost exactly what Joker attempts to do. 

Instead of a critique on societal infrastructure in a literal way, Cuckoo’s Nest uses the mental institution as a microcosm a greater overall problem. Those in power are not only interested in showing off that power at a governmental level, but at a personal level as well. Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) seems to go on a power trip by showing the patients she is in charge. In no way does it seem like her main priority is the well being of her patients. Rather, her priority is reminding her patients that they answer to her.

Of course, this doesn’t sit well with Mac and he shows his new friends just what they have been missing out on. In turn, his friends follow his example because they trust him. And this is what I appreciate most about Cuckoo’s Nest. Mac is able to enact inspire and spark a small scale “uprising” through personal relationships. He leads by example and shows his friends what they are missing out on. Instead of some difficult to grasp abstract idea, it’s the personal relationship and firsthand experience which they latch on to, and that is extremely special.

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