Netflix’s new series Ratched attempts to fill in the backstory of one of cinema’s most iconic villains. But is it necessary?
Nurse Mildred Ratched is one of the most enigmatic and unassuming villains ever committed to celluloid. When Louise Fletcher played the iconic character in 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (based the Ken Kesey novel), it won her a well-deserved Oscar. With a soft-spoken demeanor, ethereal white wardrobe, and subtle body language she turned the unassuming into something monstrous.
What was going on inside her head at any given moment? What influenced the person she became – cold, calculating, and remorseless?
Truth be told, I never had much interest in these questions.
Part of the allure of Nurse Ratched is not knowing her angle. But since we’re well into a remake, prequel, and spin-off cycle, that hasn’t stopped Ryan Murphy from giving us the new Netflix series Ratched, which looks to demystify the devil.
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I like Sarah Paulson. I think she’s proven herself a versatile actor, able to be as virtuous or morally bankrupt as a role demands. Casting her as Ratched seemed inspired, and full of possibility. For what it’s worth, her performance is one of the highlights of this dubious series.
I’ve watched 5 seasons of American Horror Story and periodically catch glimpses of Glee when my significant other is relaxing on the weekend. The Ryan Murphy Formula consists of slick camera tricks, lots of attractive faces, and plotting that grows more convoluted with each passing episode. (One of the reasons I checked out after American Horror Story: Hotel).
Where I struggle most with Ratched is its empty replications of Old Hollywood. As we move from one overproduced, over-lit scene to the next, Murphy’s sense of gaudy decadence is on full display. The colors are impossibly crisp; the mental hospital may as well be the Sistine Chapel with a CG facelift; and characters who are disfigured or psychologically damaged still look like they’d have a shot on Dancing with the Stars.
But to what end? The aesthetic perfection of each scene is at odds with Ratched‘s thematic elements, to the point where it becomes the show’s distracting focus. Paulson’s portrayal is anything but shallow, but the slick visuals pull away from her efforts.
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One could argue this is meant as a deliberate contrast to the drab, earthy color palette Milos Forman utilized for Cuckoo’s Nest, but I don’t buy that. It’s not like the series starts off in “better, more colorful” times for Ratched – she’s damaged from the moment we first lay eyes on her.
That said, there are minutes-long passages within the 8-episode season that allow the cast to get lost in dialog, with a minimum of stylistic intrusion. These isolated scenes are when Ratched is at its best. In the penultimate episode (directed by Jennifer Lynch), there are many points where the characters are allowed to breathe, scheme and bond without some arbitrary split-screen effect happening.
Unfortunately, Ratched has no interest in approaching its characters from a remotely realistic place. Within the first episode, we have faux-Noir intrigue with a PI played by Corey Stoll.
There’s shootouts and car chases pulled from Bonnie and Clyde. The prioritization of style over substance diminishes the human elements, much to the story’s detriment.
Meanwhile, various subplots get lost within the overstuffed narrative. Take, for instance: the Governor’s (Vincent D’Onofrio channeling Orson Welles channeling Trump) use of the mental hospital as a lynchpin for his re-election campaign. Then there’s Sharon Stone as a grotesque socialite (imagine a cross between Norma Desmond and Moira Rose) looking for revenge on the doctor who allegedly disfigured her disturbed son. These two subplots in particular weigh down the main story, with the latter employed mostly as the vessel by which Mildred sacrifices her humanity.
The problem is, it’s a moment conceived like something out of a horror movie (and not the subtle A24 kind), going for the gruesome instead of something psychologically unsettling. The series is a paradoxical rush to establish and dispatch certain characters, while stretching the roles of others to their breaking points. A 2-hour movie would’ve served Mildred Ratched’s dark past better, but the fact that Netflix green-lit two seasons seems needlessly self-indulgent.
While Ratched‘s showrunners can’t decide whether to treat it with the weight of an Alfred Hitchcock movie or the camp spirit of John Waters, it hovers in a maddening limbo between substance and silliness. Even Mac Quayle’s (Mr. Robot) score is comprised of deliberate lifts from Bernard Herrmann (Psycho and Cape Fear in particular).
That said, the interactions between Judy Davis (as Nurse Bucket) and Amanda Plummer (as a nosy motel manager) late in the season are a joyous embrace of the Waters sensibility. Davis in particular is fantastic, one of the few characters given something resembling an arc, and her snark and sarcasm is welcome. As she and Plummer dance drunkenly in a living room, part of me wanted Mink Stole and Divine to come out of the shadows and take them on a filthy journey through the lower depths of bad taste.
Now that would’ve been entertaining.
What did you think of Ratched? Let us know in the comments.