In the pantheon of great movie villains, Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Mildred Ratched is up there with Leatherface and Emperor Palpatine. As Jack Nicholson’s nemesis in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, she embodies the kind of emotionless, unsympathetic authority figure we’ve all been frustrated by at the passport office or Inland Revenue, only with the power to withhold your meds or have you lobotomised. She’s the banality of evil personified, a figure who grinds away your resistance, politely crushes your humanity in the system’s vice.
Ratched remains as horrifying today as she was both in 1975, and in 1962, when she first appeared in Ken Kesey’s novelisation of his time working as an orderly in a psychiatric hospital. If anything, she’s only grown more fearsome as our society has made authority even chillier and more faceless, palming off decisions around everything from medical care to benefit payments to deportations to computers in distant server farms. In 2020, Nurse Ratched is the A Level results algorithm. She’s the ICE agents holding children in cages at the Mexican border. She’s the mask-clad medic who won’t give you a Covid-19 test.
Unfortunately, she’s also the lead character in Ryan Murphy’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest prequel for Netflix, Ratched, which colours in the details of her journey from the second world war field hospitals of Okinawa to a mental institution in northern California and, eventually, to the role of Chief Nurse at Oregon State Hospital. Unfortunate because, in true Ryan Murphy style, this is a technicolour festival of sumptuous clothes and sawn-off limbs, close-up lobotomies and rampant lesbianism, which you could only mistake for the book or film if you’d actually been lobotomised.
Which is not to say that Ratched is bad, per se. But it is a bad version of the Nurse Ratched story. In attempting to flesh out a character whose defining characteristic is her inaccessibility, Murphy’s series sucks out everything that makes her one of cinema’s most enduringly scary villains. Instead, we get more prosaic horror notes, substance supplanted by a style that will be immediately recognisable to American Horror Story fans.
If Ratched fails as a Cuckoo’s Nest prequel, then it succeeds as a spiritual AHS sequel. There’s even the asylum setting, even if this time Murphy’s muse, Sarah Paulson, is on the other side of the staff-patient divide (well, sort of). The opening scene could even be a direct transplant, offering up a masturbating priest and triple homicide in exquisite detail, before we hit the credits.
The clergy-killer, Edmund (Finn Wittrock, doing decent work in eyes-down menace), is swiftly packed off to a mental hospital on the Californian coast, to be diagnosed as either sane enough to stand trial – and, it’s assumed, be given the death penalty – or diagnosable enough to require a lifetime of treatment. Nurse Ratched follow, for predictable reasons, where she cons her way into a job. The institute’s director, Dr Hanover (Jon Jon Briones) is a drug-addicted danger to himself and others, with a genuine urge to help his patients but a misplaced belief in his own ability to do so. Here, Ratched explores some interesting ideas around clinical authority and medical responsibility, as Hanover subjects the people in his care to what he considers ‘cutting-edge’ treatments – lobotomies, LSD dosing, hydrotherapy – but which, 70 years on, we know to be as inhumane as they are ineffective.
It’s a shame that Ratched uses these as mere plot-drivers, because they offer some of the series’ most viscerally horrible moments – Mildred Ratched delivering an icepick to the eye-socket, which cuts to a shot from the patient’s POV just before she hammers the glistening tip home, will linger long in the memory. The same can’t be said for the more by-numbers set pieces, which Ratched lurches between like the Frankensteinian orderlies who populate its corridors.
Ultimately, this is a show that tries to paper over its cracks in plot and characterisation with vivid costume and production design, which is to say, it’s a Ryan Murphy show. Those looking for their fix of glamour and gore will find much to enjoy. Anyone looking to further their understanding of who Nurse Ratched is, and how she got that way, will not.
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