One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is about how Randall McMurphy, a violent patient in a mental hospital, pits himself against the hospital’s authoritative figure Nurse Ratched.
As with Dog Day Afternoon, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is another masterpiece from 1975. To be honest, I wasn’t a big fan of it when I watched it years ago but this time round I really got to appreciate it better. It’s definitely not an easy film to appreciate; if you don’t get the themes and messages that it is trying to put across, the whole film will just come off as random and weird. The themes that the movie is trying to address aren’t exactly new, but it’s more of the story’s unique setting that makes it stand out even more. Having read the book, I realised that there are definitely some aspects that aren’t examined in great detail (a good portion of the story is told form the chief’s perspective in the book), but it doesn’t matter because the movie still addresses them sufficiently. The whole idea of oppression and the “mind-numbing” therapy sessions (propaganda? brain-washing?) are concepts that we all are familiar with, and yet in the context of this film, it still becomes very interesting because of the unusual setting of the film. It’s interesting to note how all the guards are black males, how all the patients are also males and how all of them are under the control of this dominating female character. Like I said, the film is trying to reflect some social trends and ideas that are actually still pretty relevant in today’s context. Milos Forman’s direction really stood out, and yes I think he really deserved all the recognition for his work here. He really had to tie everything together despite things happening rather randomly in the film. The whole somewhat surrealistic and subtly oppressive atmosphere of the hospital is really felt, from the calm, “mind-numbing” music that is always playing in the background, the “therapy” sessions and the exercises, to the guards that are always standing around at Nurse Ratched’s orders.
Another aspect of the film that makes it stand out are the very interesting characters. Like MASH, the movie doesn’t really take a stand about whom the viewers should support. The hooligans or the ones establishing control? Yes, I’m beginning to notice the whole anti-establishment thing going on in a lot of the 70s movies. Personally, I used to side McMurphy but this time round I actually sympathised with Nurse Ratched A LOT more than I did in the past, given how I used to label her a “cold bitch”. I actually felt that McMurphy really crossed the line and what Nurse Ratched did is a pretty reasonable response. The mental hospital patients could have been caricatures, but (also thanks to the actors) they are actually a bunch of really “colourful” (but not likeable) personalities and their various individual problems make them really unique, be it the insecure Harding or the stuttering Billy (played excellently by Brad Dourif who was Oscar nominated for his work here).
I think everybody knows that the performances in this film are legendary and iconic, especially Jack Nicholson’s leading performance as Randall McMurphy. I still love his Five Easy Pieces more, but there’s no denying how great he was here. He definitely has the most difficult character to play, but he really adopted a risky, no holds barred approach and made it uniquely his. On one hand, he has to bring out the wild, unpredictable, violent and crude side of the character and on the other hand, he also has to inject his own charisma into the role to actually make him the “unlikely hero” of the film whom everybody roots for. He also has to bring out the more complex sides of the character through his interactions with the patients. Although McMurphy can be interpreted as a very self-centered individual, he actually does try to “help” the other patients see the “truth”, or “help” Billy with his sexual awakening. Yet at the same time, is he also galvanising the gang against Nurse Ratched for his own purpose? I really liked how Nicholson displayed the various facets of this complex character, who can be passed off as simplistic at first.
Louise Fletcher’s performance isn’t the most popular win, and I used to her performance overrated but this time round (I realise keep using these 3 words in this post LOL) I appreciated her work here a lot more. I still don’t think she’s the greatest winner ever, since I prefer Isabelle Adjani’s perforance as Adele Hugo that year. However, what I liked about her performance is what people criticise about it: the mystery behind the character. I liked that she never makes it truly clear if Nurse Ratched is evil or she’s just doing her job. On one hand, there’s no denying that she’s a professional at what she does. She ‘s calm, collected and distant from the patients, knowing that she mustn’t get emotions involved in the job. On the other hand, I do see this flash of satisfaction when she triumphs over the patient, like the smirk she gives McMurphy when she foils his plant. And then of course there’s that famous manipulation scene at the end which is really excellently handled. It’s a role that I feel is more difficult than it seems, especially because most actresses would have played it one way (Evil) or the other (Doing her job), but I liked that she suggested it was both forces at play, maybe one even being the cause of the other. Still…it’s a very limited part and other than this aspect, I can’t say that there is much I can write about her performance. It’s a good performance, but not my favourite best actress winner ever.
At the end of the day, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is undoubtedly a masterfully made film, although I have to admit that unlike Dog Day Afternoon, it’s a movie that I respect more than I really love. Still, there’s really little I can fault about it. 5/5.