#86 One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest
(1975, Milos Forman)
“If that’s what being crazy is, then I’m senseless, out of it, gone-down-the-road, wacko”
Remember that I’ve said in the past that Jack Nicholson is fantastic at looking insane? It’s what made him great as the Joker in Batman, and it’s what gave the game away in The Shining before the hotel got to him. Well, this was the first movie to really show how well-suited to being crazy he is.
Set in a mental institution, Nicholson plays R.P. McMurphy, a rebel who’s been sent to be evaluated due to his assault records and suspected statutory rape charge. During his time in the institution, he begins to question the totalitarian attitude of Head Nurse Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher) and begins to fight back, not just for himself, but for the sanity of the inmates he befriends.
The key thing that makes One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest so brilliant is that no one here is entirely decent. Our protagonist is a criminal who likes to fight people who annoy him, and is proud of his arrest record, and yet Nicholson plays him so well, it’s hard not to root for the guy. Particularly when he shows a desire to get the inmates some of his own unique therapy – attempting to give them a chance to watch the World Series, or breaking them out for a day on a fishing boat. It’s a step up from the official therapy, and we see it has a positive effect on everyone.
Speaking of the officials, the authority figure here is a stern, uncaring woman played with such coldness by Fletcher that you just end up hating her. This is not a criticism. We’re supposed to hate her, since she’s a person in a position to help people, but she has no compassion. Her desire to conduct therapy as clinical, almost business-like meetings is actually quite creepy, and her passive-aggressiveness is chilling, particularly her attempts to control stuttering patient Billy (Brad Dourif) with threats of talking to his mother.
The choice of setting the movie largely within a single room, and a room that’s bland and featureless at that, means the movie hinges entirely on the performances, and there isn’t a single bad performance here. Nicholson is unpredictable but likeable and Fletcher is genuinely menacing, but there are also great performances from Sydney Lassick, Brad Dourif, a barely-recognisable Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd in his first major movie role.
Cuckoo’s Nest is not a happy film though. It builds up the idea that Nurse Ratched could potentially be brought down a peg or two so much we expect it to happen, but the ending has other ideas for us. Some inmates end up dying as a result, and usually after moments of defiance, highlighting how impossible it is to break out of her grip.
It’s made even sadder because it’s easy to see how better the patients could be treated. No one is particularly dangerous (expect perhaps McMurphy) and a softer approach to therapy could potentially work on them. Ratched’s control of Billy through his fear of his mother is a key example; instead of trying to work on dealing with that fear, she tortures him with it, threatening to speak to her whenever he says something she disagrees with.
It also raises issues of what it really means to be crazy, particularly as some of the patients come across as harmless, just a little quirky and unlike how society suggests they should be. Cheswick is an amicable man, his only problem being occasional childish tantrums, and Harding’s only issue seems to be his repressed homosexuality, and the idea of committing someone because of that these days sounds absurd. Are the patients really crazy in all this, or is it the likes of Nurse Ratched – the kind of people who want to control those who are different?
One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is a brilliant criticism of mental health practices of decades-past, and a harrowing but immensely watchable humanistic drama. Just don’t expect things to turn out well.
Starring Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, William Redfield, Brad Dourif, Sydney Lassick, Will Sampson, Danny DeVito & Christopher Lloyd
Written by Ken Kesey (novel), Lawrence Hauben & Bo Goldman
Produced by Saul Zaentz & Michael Douglas
Music score by Jack Nitzsche
Cinematography by Haskell Wexler
Edited by Richard Chew, Sheldon Kahn & Lynzee Klingman
Favourite Scene: The morning after McMurphy manages to sneak a party into the institution. The defiance from the patients is spectacular, particularly from Billy.
Scene That Bugged Me: I did question exactly how McMurphy climbed the fence. He climbs through the barbed wire without a scratch, and none of the orderlies seem to be paying any attention to him.
Watch it if: You want to see one of Jack Nicholson’s finest performances
Avoid it if: You have too much sympathy for Nurse Ratched