There’s no technical reason why One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is my favorite film. There’s no academic essay, no scholarly words, no dorky references. To me, this movie is as painful as it is fun. It’s as much of a reminder about life as it is a cinematic call-to-action. When I watch One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, I see a great drama, I see a magnificent discourse on society, and I see a mirror that penetrates through my skin and burrows to my core.
To me, the world of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is the celluloid nightmare we’ve all grown up in, alienated and aloof as we walk down the immaculate white hallways of our sprawling dystopia. In this institution, dream-like melodies lull us to sleep as some civic-minded community leader plans out a routine for us, and mandatory medication dulls our senses as some well-dressed legislator legislates our life options into fewer and fewer multiple choice options. We’re reminded that we have freedom of choice, that there’s a door we can walk through, as this hazy nightmare icily folds around our inebriated limbs. We see the swaying trees through the window, the leaves rustling as a cool breeze rushes by. The sun’s out. There are animals frolicking.
But we stay inside. We stay where it’s safe, where it’s comfortable and warm and seemingly nurturing enough. The food ain’t that bad here, and the doctors and nurses and orderlies are smiley at least.
In this institution, our meals are prepared and portioned for us. Our medicine is doled out, right on schedule. Nurses tend to our needs, reminding us of what we can and cannot do. We’re civilized here. We’re herded together under a set standard of rules and regulations – members of a community working to rehabilitate ourselves for the greater good. Some rules don’t make sense, but we don’t question; we keep our heads bowed as that music envelops us. What we need to know about the world, the news, that glowing beacon known as the Fourth Estate, will tell us, patting us on the head while its agents stuff a few greasy dollar bills into their pockets – much-deserved tips for a job well done.
“Medication time. Medication time,” the loudspeaker soothes.
“Medication time. Medication time,” our smiley friends remind us.
But then there’s that movie playing in the background – One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. It reminds us of the swaying trees and the rustling leaves. It pesters us to gaze at the sun, to watch the animals. It’s our life, not theirs, this movie whispers to us. We’re just as level-headed, competent, intelligent, and capable as anyone, so we should choose, not them.
Very few of us have ever met a Randall Patrick McMurphy. When he crashes into our lives, his boyish bravado and rebellious humor carry forth a tumultuous sea of discord that permit us to see how stained and covered in filth and waste those bleached, white walls really are. When R.P. McMurphy’s around, we take notice of the favoritism the nurses play and their sycophantic coddling, and we meet the insitution’s personal goon squad, the one that steps in when our fellow inmates are a little too unruly. We hear the hoarse cries of violence reverberating a few octaves below the music, and we see the oil and slime dripping from that community leader’s fingertips. And out of nowhere, this man, R.P. McMurphy, asks us our opinion on something. He asks us what we would like to do, where we would like to go, how we would like to go, and he asks us if we’re brave enough. Once one breaks the spell, that pied piper hospital muzak is a haunting melody – a melody of sleep, death, and servitude.
When that tune wriggles under our skin and makes us afraid, it is only then that we begin to dream. We can envision a greater world and see the interlocking pieces of a bigger picture. Our problems, our ailments that have plagued us, they’re nothing more than minor crutches we’ve used, that the nurses and doctors have used, to keep us in line – ants on the march toward building a better tomorrow. Everything that seemed so worrisome and important is only an artificial roadblock. And we were never sick to begin with, so why are we here?
The protagonist of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest dies in the end, his attempts to shove a bug up the ass of the system and free us all seemingly thwarted, but there’s a moment where another character, a silent observer R.P. McMurphy inspired, throws a water fountain through the window and escapes into the early hours of a new dawn. That character, Chief, is a representation of us, of what we could be if we wanted. He’s the mirror, the shimmering pool Milos Forman’s 133-minute odyssey is asking us to look into and reflect. Are we truly living freely, or are we stunting ourselves to live out the lives our betters have deemed more fitting for us?
Though some critics will argue this film is ultimately about R.P. McMurphy’s failure, this film is less about failure as it is about keeping the wildfire, the question, the realization of the bigger picture alive. If the protagonist can inspire even one solitary soul to bear the weight of skepticism and individuality, he has succeeded. Period.
When I watch One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, I don’t watch it as a film scholar or a movie buff, I watch it as just another human. And it’s cathartic. Empowering.