Insanity can take on many forms. It can be the literal idea of trying an action over and over while expecting a different result each time. It could be a serious issue. Or, as this film might suggest, it can be a form of rebellion.
That is at the heart of this film, that insanity is a form of protest. We see the inmates as people who are rebelling but are sent to an insane asylum instead, often of their own free will. If that seems manipulative, that’s the film’s greatest trick: we root for the crazies because they don’t seem crazy. And this only works because of our two leads.
Randle McMurphy is our protagonist. He is decidedly sane, but extremely rebellious. He is the framing device with which we see the inmates as sane but rebellious, since that’s how he sees them. He speaks for them, yet seems oblivious to their actual mental problems. Our antagonist is Nurse Ratched. She is calm, collected, always in control. She is less a nurse and, from our point of view, more like a prison warden. The order she keeps is one which suppresses the rebellious spirit of the inmates. She almost never raises her voice, but she will keep her order and everyone obeys. Except McMurphy.
For everyone ever wondering why we always assume that Jack Nicholson is insane, this is why. He plays McMurphy as an insane rebel. He curses constantly, he always shouts, he seems oblivious to the fact that the inmates do have problems. He chose to be sent to a mental institution to avoid going to a prison farm, just to avoid the hard labor. When he gets Chief to talk, it’s played off as a breakthrough while another inmate is horrifyingly given shock therapy. McMurphy doesn’t know what he’s doing.
Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched seems to never show an emotion. She portrays calm rage that seems to effective for it’s own good. She wants her order, for everyone to be quiet. The inmates who can’t comprehend them don’t count until it can keep that peace, like with the vote for the television. If she sees a threat, she uses underhanded means to solve it.
Milos Forman masterfully manipulates everyone watching this film. When you see someone with a stuttering problem not as an inmate but as a young man who needs to grow up, you can tell that the manipulation is working. Forget that we know that isn’t the case, it just works. He also manipulates men with a base idea. That idea: the only two women we aren’t told to hate are prostitutes. The film is pure manipulation, but succeeds both because and in spite of it.
The ending is more of a symbolic happy ending than an actual one. However, as a film about rebellion, that is the best outcome to expect. And we all watch because it helps show us that the rebellious spirit can win. That is what everyone takes from this film: it is a story about rebellion, not insanity.
Directed by Milos Forman
Jack Nicholson,Louise Fletcher, William Redfield, Brad Dourif, Danny DeVito, Sydney Lassick, Christopher Lloyd, Will Sampson