One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) features one of cinemas all-time greatest villains, Nurse Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher). A shark-eyed, calculating and cruel individual who devours every scene as the viewer watches on, powerless to stop her. Her passive aggression condemns multiple patients, including one of Jack Nicholson’s greatest characters R.P McMurphy, to a tragic end. She was a different kind of villain, not a stalking murderer or other-worldly monster, but a flesh and blood human, who worst of all, worked in a position of authority with vulnerable individuals. Fletcher’s performance was wonderfully layered and if you haven’t already seen Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it comes highly recommended. Nurse Ratched is a villain whose name is mentioned alongside some of cinema’s best (or is it worst?) on-screen antagonists. Empire magazine in 2019 ranked her as thirteenth in their Greatest Villain of All Time poll, ranking higher than the likes of recognisable and iconic names such as Michael Myers, Norman Bates and even Freddy Krueger.
Nurse Ratched then, is a villain for the ages and her character, along with Fletcher’s performance is still held in extremely high esteem. But she was a character shrouded in mystery, with no back story, only serving as an evil presence bestowing torture onto her patients in the psychiatric unit. What of her past though? How did her life shape her into becoming such a malevolent individual?
Coming soon to Netflix is a new TV show serving to prise out the answers in detailing the life of Mildred Ratched before her meeting with the ill-fated McMurphy et al. Brought to screen by uber-producer Ryan Murphy who, amongst many other popular shows, has been responsible for writing and producing the acclaimed American Horror Story. Ratched, starring Murphy’s frequent collaborator, the always excellent Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story, Glass) in the titular role introduces us to a younger Mildred in 1948.
We see her confidently apply for a nursing role in a well-respected psychiatric hospital, known for its potential in revolutionary but experimental treatments, spearheaded and managed by the twitchily nervous Doctor Richard Hanover (Jon Jon Briones – also from American Horror Story). We follow her as she confidently applies for a position at the hospital that doesn’t exist and are immediately introduced to a character who is entirely in control, as she manipulates and falsifies her way into a higher position at the health care facility. A confident and calculating woman, she continues to demonstrate her potential to manipulate, with an immense amount of versatility on show from Paulson in what could well be her best role yet. She simply soaks up every scene she is in, her eyes glazed with either pure contempt, vicious thoughts of revenge or calculating menace, her face alone communicates just as much as the well written and snappy dialogue.
We follow Mildred and the staff from the facility do their best to quire more funding from a misogynistic and brutish governor George Wilburn, acted with over-the-top aplomb by Vincent D’Onofrio (Full Metal Jacket, Men in Black). There is ascension, double-crossing and a large helping of interesting and cleverly featured sub-plots that never detract from the central narrative. This is a tightly produced show and credit goes to the guest directors and co-creators Ryan Murphy and Evan Romansky. There is no mid-season lull, no over-complicated plot musing, it is simple, clever, fun and addictive television.
The opening five minutes of episode 1 stand out immediately and are reminiscent of Murphy’s other popular work, American Horror Story, as it depicts a multiple murder in graphic and violent detail. This contrast to the slow burn narrative of One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s prepares the viewer for a new and rejuvenated experience that is polished and presented in an aesthetic package so stunning to look at that it is quite a staggering achievement.
But (and it’s a big but) – the experience of the show feels entirely detached from the older movie which it shares its lead character with. For fans of Forman’s movie (myself included), this is difficult to overcome and takes a few episodes to relax into and accept that this is a different version of Ratched, a younger (although Paulson is actually 4 years older than Fletcher was in the 1975 movie) and greener Nurse Ratched who is about to be changed by life-altering events. So, is this then is perhaps a Nurse Ratched of a different timeline? It certainly feels that way.
Whilst Paulson is absolutely wonderful, she does not carry the sinister presence that Fletcher imbued the OG Nurse Ratched with and herein lies one of the issues in making prequels and origin stories. Especially when considering well-loved fictional characters. The mystery of the antagonist is often importantly left to the imaginings of the viewer. In the minds of the onlooker it holds more intrigue and infinite possibilities. Nurse Mildred Ratched is evil, but why? What made her that way? And it is this that the show attempts to explain, but there is a flip-side to answering this question.
Recently, Todd Phillips’ Joker caused a similar discourse, due to the way his character’s origins were depicted on screen. The mystery was removed, he is a now a character that lives by his experiences, because of his experiences, it has, to some extent, allowed an air of sympathy to creep in. It is the same here with Ratched. In OFOTCN, Nurse Ratched is unsympathetic and our feelings towards her not ambivalent. Her cruelty comes from a place that is dark and almost demonic. Do we need to see why or how this streak of evil became fused to personality? I would suggest not. The 2020 Ratched gives us answers to questions that were better left ambiguous.
Viewed as a standalone show though, this is top-tier TV and truly excellent, but when considering its origins and what the original character represented on-screen, the differences can be jarring for die-hard fans of the 1975 movie. Paulson’s Nurse Ratched just doesn’t have the ‘feel’ of Fletcher’s version, and while this isn’t entirely a bad thing, it does leave disappointment in its wake for those expecting the story to centralise a villain. A potentially redemptive arc is a dangerous thing to offer such an amazingly layered villain. When it comes to Ratched (and the Joker for that matter) empathy for their origin is not always something that is necessary.
On the subject of the visual aesthetic, there is much to wax lyrical about. Colours burst as Ratched’s choice of attire hums with shades that contrast vividly against her surroundings. Yellows and purple almost singe the eyes as she is framed centrally and often shot with a symmetry that Wes Anderson would be proud of. The set and locations are immaculately presented – cars gleam as if brand new and the interiors of buildings shine as if freshly built and furnished. The aesthetic’s polish presents a contrast that hits a nerve once these seemingly perfect environments are splatted with blood and viscera. The events that take place in, on the surface level at least, these perfectly sterile environments are a clever contrast and adds to the horrific nature of events on screen. A bright white room for example, populated by immaculately dressed nurses and orderlies in uniforms so clean and pressed that they look brand new, is the location of the shows first depiction of the frontal lobe lobotomy. Accompanied by some quite toe-curling sound design this scene is stomach churning and made all the worse by its strangely unlived-in and immaculate setting.
Ratched then, is an excellent TV show. With outstanding performances all round and a budget that allows for a neatly packaged and visually stunning experience. It does however (on more than one occasion) present itself as American Horror Story light. American Horror presents Nurse Ratched would maybe have been a better title. Whist the show is not a horror per say, it certainly has a lot in common with its sister show and whilst this is not entirely a bad thing, it feels more of a spin-off than a stand-alone piece, which is a shame, as there is clearly enormous talent at work here.
Viewed on its own, without the consideration of both its origin or its connection to its creator’s other key show, Ratched is an addictive and exciting thriller. Full of twists and red herrings that make for binge-worthy and rewatchable TV. It is just a shame then, that we have to maybe wait a few more seasons to see Nurse Ratched go full-on black-eyed villain.