One of the more remarkable pairings of movies is that of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest vs. Girl, Interrupted: remarkable in that they have essentially the same settings and set-ups, and yet arrived at diametrically opposed conclusions.
Both movies are set at mental institutions in the 1960s, and both institutions are obviously meant to represent society as a whole. Both have confused and lost protagonists. Both institutions are invaded by a rebel who plays by their own rules, giving new hope and wonder to the repressed patients. Both have stern, female, authoritarian, nurse antagonists trying to keep the rebel in line. Both films’ confused protagonists have their horizons expanded by the freewheeling rebel, who introduces them to forbidden pleasures and who sneaks them outside. And in the end, both films’ rebels are eventually defeated and broken, although for very different reasons.
The endings are different because the two films (and books they are based on) are making opposite assumptions about the world we live in. In Cuckoo’s Nest, Nurse Ratched is a fundamentally evil person — because society/government/etc is fundamentally a cruel and heartless place. She seeks mainly to beat down and suppress any humanity in the patients. Jack Nicholson’s character’s cause is just, and he is seen as the ultimate victim of Ratched, punished simply because he had humanity and individuality that she could not control. The message is clear: if you do not allow yourself to be repressed and controlled by society/government/employer, you too will be destroyed.
But in Girl, Interrupted, Whoopi Goldberg’s nurse Valerie Owens, the counterpart to Ratched and therefore this film’s representation of society, was actually benevolent all along. Angelina Jolie’s character was self-destructive, and her final breakdown was due to her own tragic problems and out-of-control nature rather than through any evil actions of the mental institution. Her main problem was that she was unable to trust Valerie Owens and see the good and the order that she offered. Her fun-loving wild-child schtick was just a mask to cover the pain inside, and that is what defeated her — not any action on the part of Owens. Her final surrender was what allowed her to get help.
Cuckoo’s Nest’s rebel was the healthiest and sanest person in the film. He was destroyed because he refused to be bent or corrupted by Ratched’s soulless, bureaucratic institution. Girl, Interrupted’s rebel, on the other hand, was one of the craziest and most depressed people in the institution. She was destroyed only by herself, but the institution could make her whole again.
The genders of these two films are also appropriate. Cuckoo’s Nest celebrates rugged individualism, traditionally seen as a masculine trait. The collectivism and empathy of Girl, Interrupted, of course, are viewed as feminine.
Either way, I used to have a more positive view of the world as in the latter film, until my own experience with a Nurse Ratched-level dystopia moved me irrevocably into the camp of the former. I see now that the elites who run most institutions really are corrupt, cynical, uncaring, and only wanting to keep their boot on your neck for life. Our Big Nurses come not offering warmth or compassion. They come offering lobotomies.