Is it today’s Hollywood mantra that when you can’t make a remake or something already perfect, you better imagine a prequel? Figuring out the past of an iconic character before the events of a particular film or book mean a profitable result and not necessarily limited by the facts already known about their future. Either way, it’s almost impossible not to think that the current “prequelitis” that affects the industry relies more on opportunistic abuse of intellectual properties than anything else. Is RATCHED an example of it? A Netflix series created by Evan Romansky and developed by Ryan Murphy, directly focused on the nurse Mildred Ratched, a character from the book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey and its respective film adaptation directed by Milos Forman in 1975; the new reinvention pretends to explore the origin story of such a villainous character following the steps of recent fictional TV ventures like HANNIBAL or BATES MOTEL.
Louise Fletcher won an Academy Award for performing Nurse Ratched in Forman’s films. It remains one of the everlasting aspects of the film, a chilling portrait of a cruel and cold head nurse ruling a mental hospital. Fletcher’s performance, usually lauded as one of the best female performances of all time, is just an integral part of a dearly beloved and respected film. So there are big shoes to fill for Murphy and Co, and also for Sarah Paulson taking the role this time. A steady actress in Ryan Murphy’s projects (including her acclaimed performance as Marcia Clark in AMERICAN CRIME STORY: THE PEOPLE V. O.J. SIMPSON), Paulson has proven she can do anything.
However, to fully appreciate RATCHED as a standalone work, the most convenient thing is to accept that it is different from a film distinguished for a seriousness devoid of artifice. Comparisons won’t do any favor in this case because Murphy and Romansky’s vision follows a radically opposite approach. It won’t work for some, but nobody can say that it suffers from a lack of risk or creativity. With RATCHED, we enter in the baroque and overwhelming universe of Ryan Murphy, one more time, taking control of a project that wasn’t his initially. As it is, RATCHED looks like a lost season of AMERICAN HORROR STORY, only without supernatural elements. The season would please the regular audience of his shows, while it may repel the ones who expect to find something similar to the CUCKOO‘s film. In a sense, Murphy and his team of collaborators are preaching for the already converted.
The show starts in 1947, depicting a horrible event that shapes the dark tone of the narration. Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock) murdered four priests, claiming that one of them was the father who didn’t recognize him. After his arrest, Tolleson is put in the temporal care of a mental hospital in Northern California. Director Richard Hannover (Jon Jon Briones) and head nurse Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis) govern the facilities of the Lucia State Hospital where Tolleson ended, a place in which strange events take place due to the extravagant methods of Hannover’s work. Enter Mildred Ratched (Paulson), a nurse asking for a job in the hospital, although there is no vacancy for her at the moment. Since the Pilot episode, we learn that Ratched not only pursues a career as a nurse, she also has a secret motivation. Tolleson is her adoptive brother, both orphans, raised together by abusive families until a terrible night where they were obliged to part ways. Acting with double intentions, the unpredictability of Ratched allows her to build her way to the hospital through blackmail and manipulations, to the point she conquer a position of authority in the place where she was initially rejected. From the very beginning, it is clear that Mildred is a Machiavelian figure believing that the end justifies the means. Even so, her contradictory personality is always debating between a cold, cruel behavior and moments of vulnerability when she wants to help other people, in conformity with her vocation. Her ambivalence is an aspect that permeates the entire series, in which moments of pure terror will make everything unwatchable if it weren’t for those instants of levity and humanity reminding us that people are not always evil and miserable. Characters like Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon), a potential romantic interest for a closeted Ratched trying to accept her sexuality, provides a potential path of redemption from the vicious circle of pain and abandonment that feeds her tendency to harm people around her.
RATCHED is an odd experiment in the Ryan Murphy canon, with enough characteristics to stands out in the Netflix platform as one of its most violent, bizarre, and controversial shows. There are instants of nasty body horror situations, including lessons on how to practice lobotomies, turned wrong hydrotherapies that conclude with a boiling flesh monster wailing his pain, or an accidental amputation by the effects of lysergic acid. Not exactly a psychological drama, RATCHED is instead a Grand Guignol spectacle trying to make its audience to tear their eyes away, finding entertainment in the macabre at the same time. It sounds like a soul-less product, but some scenes understand why broken people have difficulties in expressing their pain to heal themselves from trauma. In a great sequence, the past of Mildred and Tolleson is told by flashbacks interpolated with a marionette theater show that represents what happened to them when they were children.
The impeccable direction is also concerned in the employment of stylistic devices that pays direct homage to Hitchcock, like the sudden use of green and red colors in some lighting changes that mark moods and atmospheres invaded by horror. In the carefully composed shots, a mustard outfit is as important as a piece of dialogue. What many critics will rightfully consider an obvious sign of style over substance, it is what makes RATCHED unforgettable. What avoids that the aesthetic proposal became just a shallow surface that embellishes even the uglier scenes, is the fact that characters matters in the hands of gifted veteran actors behind them. If Paulson and Nixon lead the pack, Wittrock, Sharon Stone, Charlie Carver, Amanda Plummer y Vincent D’Onofrio are brilliant scene-stealers. Among them, Jon Jon Briones and Judy Davis are the outstanding revelations, both neglected actors proving themselves as something else than eternal supporting performers. If there’s something that Murphy has always achieved with his shows and films is that wasted talent only needs a good opportunity to gain late redemption for their careers.
RATCHED ends with the promise of a Season 2. In the future, maybe the show will benefit from the exploration of female authority demonized in a men’s world, a titillating subject in the series that remained underdeveloped here. In Forman’s film, this vision is represented by an icon of pure evil, while in RATCHED you almost feel a response that intends to subvert it. Sadly, as a CUCKOO‘s prequel it is insufficient. In a climate where every series wants to become the next best prestige drama, there is an audience eager to satisfy primary instincts. As Ryan Murphy’s show, RATCHED works in its own terms, and it is everything we want from him: cheap thrills to die for.