I first saw this movie when I was in college and even then I felt it was a little more morally complicated than a lot of people seemed to think. I hadn’t seen it since so when a local theater screened it, I found a way to go. Jack Nicholson gives a performance that is instantly iconic, though it’s a little annoying that he’s trying quite as hard as he is. It’s a performance that lays the groundwork for a lot of his worst tendencies or maybe I should say it’s a performance that contains things that he would come to rely on as tics as he became increasingly typecast as this kind of free spirit. But it does have the benefit of freshness here and the performance does also have other elements. Nicholson lets us see the darker side of McMurphy, the one that often hides behind the devilish grin and the loud laughter; he isn’t just a free spirit here – he’s also occasionally terrifying in his rage, never more so than in the climax, and there are a few moments where Nicholson lets us see McMurphy in a more vulnerable light than a lot of actors would. It is a masterful performance even if it feels a little reduced by the fact that we’ve now seen Nicholson do precisely this schtick for several decades now.
The rest of the cast is really phenomenal. Everyone is perfectly cast all the way down to the ground. Brad Dourif is the stand-out really, even more so than Louise Brooks who is fine, but never anything approaching Oscar worthy, as Nurse Rached. Among the next tier cast-members, Christopher Llloyd walks off with every scene he’s in.
Anyway, the film is a morally fuzzy one. I’m never entirely sure just how much the movie believes McMurphy’s BS. Kesey, in the book, clearly didn’t buy it all that far; McMurphy is a functional character, in the novel, only as a balance to Nurse Rached. The situation is much more of a Yin/Yang scenario in the novel – it isn’t that Rached is the villain and McMurphy the hero, it’s that together they each become both of those things. And the book has the filter of being from Chief’s perspective while the film shows us things from what we suppose is a divorced perspective, more of a true perspective than Chief’s very flawed one in the novel. So the film really seems to be invested in making McMurphy “right,” and Rached “wrong.” And both of them are those things at various times; it’s just that they’re also both the other thing and the film isn’t as interested in that complexity, the fluidity of correctness, as the book is. So, you see the film playing the lengthy fishing trip sequence really straight as if McMurphy is really giving these patients what they need, as if a boat trip is going to help these emotionally and mentally stunted, very troubled men. In the book, the fishing trip is less heroic; it’s McMurphy reaching for something to do in order to play the part these men seem to have created for him. There’s a sense of McMurphy’s weariness, a feeling that he doesn’t even want to do it, but feels somehow that he has to do it in order to be the “free spirit” that the men want him to be and also, oddly, in order for him to be the enemy to Rached that she really wants him to be. The book is just a very emotionally and morally complicated story and I think the film is much, much less so. In 1975, it probably did seem cool and anti-establishment, Nicholson pouring beer down the throats of those mentally challenged guys and thinking one sexual encounter is going to cure poor Billy of his extreme anxiety disorder. These days, given what we know about mental and emotional trauma, McMurphy’s antics don’t look that much better than the electro-shock therapy the doctors dish out. But the film is compelling in that it’s true to the characters; the film isn’t as preachy as it could be about championing McMurphy, so you’re perfectly free to view the climactic stuff with Billy as being just as much McMurphy’s fault as it is Rached’s (which it is). The film, from this perspective, is just showing you the behavior and allowing you to make up your mind about it. The film deviates from this occasionally and that’s when it’s annoying. The hilariously inappropriate “heroic fanfare” that plays as Chief (a very, very sick man) escapes into the Pacific Northwest woods is cringe inducing, particularly since McMurphy has actually managed to make Chief start drinking, something that Chief has plainly told McMurphy will destroy him. I don’t see it as so heroic that Chief’s going to drown in a puddle of water under a bridge in Seattle. The scene where McMurphy gets Chief to drink, after having previously heard Chief talk about the demon of alcoholism that haunts him, literally enraged me this time around. It wouldn’t be so enraging if I didn’t feel like the movie wants me to think that it’s cool, not disgusting, that Chief is getting drunk.
But the movie is puzzling to me and challenging. It’s a movie that left me feeling, as it did the first time I saw it, very uncomfortable. I think perhaps there is some moral complexity in the film, though I do also have the unpleasant feeling that I might just be projecting. I certainly don’t think it can be read as a purely inspirational tale, as so many still try to read it. But it’s a film that leaves me thinking every time I see it and leaves me genuinely troubled. And I just sat down and wrote four paragraphs on the movie without even thinking about it. It bothers me. There are some definite flaws, some of them genuinely morally troubling; but it’s a movie that I think everyone really does need to see. There’s too much going on here for it to be anything but great, flawed though it is. Highly recommended. 4 stars.
tl;dr – some of novel’s moral complexity is lost, but the film remains a thought-provoking, troubling story of moral struggle; absolutely of its time, but viscerally immediate still today. 4 stars.