Faith and Film: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

As The Dark Knight Risesslowly recedes from public consciousness, and as I begin to suspect that anyone who might be thinking about reading my (totally awesome) book God on the Streets of Gotham has either bought and/or stolen one by now, it’s about time for this blog to turn its attention to other things—other books, television shows, movies and anything else in the culture that contains a hint of God’s fingerprints.
But admittedly, those fingerprints are easier to see in some places than in others.
About a month ago, I decided to sit down and watch all the 100 films listed by the American Film Institute as history’s “best” (the list was most recently updated in 2007). I’ve seen most of them, but there are a number that I never had a chance to catch, and one of those landed at No. 33 on the list: 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—winner of five Academy Awards, including for Best Picture, Best Actress (Louise Fletcher as the steely Nurse Ratched) and Best Actor—Jack Nicholson at his best as Randle McMurphy.
(By the way, I’m assuming that folks reading this far have already seen Cuckoo’s Nest—and if they haven’t, they should probably stop reading now … don’t want to spoil anything.)
For as long as I can remember, I’ve heard Nicholson’s McMurphy described as a (perhaps the) prototypical antihero and Nurse Ratched as one of moviedom’s greatest baddies. Indeed, Ratched is No. 5 on AFI’s list of worst villains—a notch below the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz and a notch above Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life. Fearsome company.
But after watching the film for the first time, McMurphy and Ratched don’t seem quite as clear cut as they may to other folks.
Oh, sure, Ratched is a bit of a soft-spoken ogre, manipulating and intimidating her patients (many of whom don’t actually need to be there) to the point where they seem to have no free will at all. She’s a bully, bent on retaining control.
And McMurphy is indeed a catalyst for freedom in those oppressive hospital confines. He longs to push these mental patients to embrace their liberty—to become the men they canbe, rather than the cattle that Ratched seems to make of them.
But things get a little messy when we look at the film from a spiritual, particularly Christian, point of view.
When you look at Ratched and the way she bullies, her primary cudgel is that of shame. She shames her charges into doing what she thinks they “should” be doing.
Shame has that sort of power over us, too. When we’re shamed and guilty, we feel it—and we feel it deeply. We beat ourselves up over it. We, in many respects, check ourselves in to deep, dank emotional places and lock ourselves away, so we can mourn and wallow in our own failings. We put ourselves at the mercy of our own guilt. And since we’ve fallen short, we feel as though we should punish ourselves, and severely.
McMurphy tells us that we don’t have to be cowed by that shame or guilt. We can escape it. He offers the sort of freedom that the world (without God) can provide–unfettered freedom, unchecked by any rule, any law.
He loves the world’s freedom. We hear he’s been thrown in the clink for assault and convicted of statutory rape—an act he brags about. He encourages his friends in the mental ward to escape and go fishing with him and, later, to partake in a wild, booze-soaked party wherein most everyone passes out and Billy, a young patient in the ward, loses his virginity.
In the movie’s ethos, Billy’s act is almost heroic—a sign that the young man is shaking off his own shame and guilt and becoming a real adult, free from the rules of the likes of Nurse Ratched. He is free.
But then Ratched lays a guilt trip on Billy, invoking the name of his mother: “What would your mother say?” she tells him. Billy, again full of shame and terrified of his mother, commits suicide—slashing his throat with a piece of broken glass.
I think most folks blame Ratched for Billy’s death. We know McMurphy does, flying into a rage and nearly choking the life out of the nurse. But for me it’s not so simple. Yes, Nurse Ratched and the controlling power of shame she represents were at fault. But doesn’t McMurphy bear some guilt himself? He, after all, created the circumstances in which that shame could take root—ushering in two willing women and a truckload of booze into, we must remember, a mental institution … not the best forum to unload gallons of potentially mind-altering wares.
The world alone, it seems, gives us two choices for how to live our lives. We can either A) adhere to the arbitrary rules we make and live in shame when we break them, or B) we can pretend there are no rules at all and potentially destroy ourselves in the process. And despite Chief’s escape in the end, we see how damaging both Nurse Ratched’s and Randle McMurphy’s worldviews can be.
But in God, there seems to be a third way—a way the film never acknowledges.
Jesus really came into the world as a sort of McMurphy character, in a way: He brought a sense of freedom like McMurphy did—freedom from the sin and shame that had plagued mankind for so long. He encouraged us not to worry (Matthew 6:31-34) and not to judge each other (Matthew 7:1-5). He’s definitely not Nurse Ratched’s type of guy.
But here’s the thing: Jesus wasn’t all about freedom for freedom’s sake. “The truth will set you free,” He tells us, and that truth begins and ends with God. And with God being perfect and all, He has some ideas on what we should be doing with our lives—none of which (I’m guessing) include getting hammered and sleeping with (ahem) women of questionable discernment in an insane asylum.
It’s one of Christianity’s grand, puzzling and profound paradoxes. As Christians, we’re held to higher ethical guidelines than Nurse Ratched could ever dream—and yet we live in perfect freedom, too, that makes McMurphy’s version seem cautious by comparison. When we follow Christ, we aren’t good because we have to be: We’re good because we know God wants us to be, and we want to please him.
I don’t know if Nurse Ratched or Randle McMurphy could ever truly understand that paradox. Hey, I’m still puzzling it out. But I believe the paradox to be true.

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