One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)    4 Stars

“If he’s crazy, what does that make you?”


One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

Director: Milos Forman

Cast: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, Michael Berryman

Synopsis: Upon admittance to a mental institution, a brash rebel rallies the patients to take on the oppressive head nurse.

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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is dominated by two towering performances: that of Jack Nicholson, so often the driving force of any movie in which he appears, as the high-spirited R. P. McMurphy, a prisoner doing time for statutory rape – ‘She was fifteen years old, going on thirty-five, Doc.’ – who is transferred to a mental institute for observation to see if he’s crazy, and Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched, the coldly stern and efficient matron of the ward to which McMurphy is allocated.

The ward is a dreary place, decorated in neutral, non-threatening browns and beiges, and echoing to soothing old tunes intended to keep its inmates calm. As you’d expect, they’re a strange bunch: Harding (William Redfield) is a prissy, buttoned-down poop with sexual problems he refuses to discuss who’s constantly harrassed by the highly-strung Taber (Christopher Lloyd, in his movie debut). The pint-sized Martini, a restrained performance from Danny DeVito, reprising his Broadway role, seems to follow his own set of spontaneously created rules and has only a tenuous grasp of what is going on around him; Cheswick (Sidney Lassick) is an excitable child, and the outwardly normal Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif, another debutant) is a failed suicide with a debilitating stammer. McMurphy crashes into their lives with all the force of a tidal wave, simultaneously enriching their previously regimented lives and earning the wrath of the domineering Ratched.

The performances of Fletcher and Nicholson are pretty much polar opposites. Where Nicholson plays McMurphy as a restless force of nature – without resorting to the over-the-top histrionics of another mad man, Jack Torrance in The Shining – Fletcher’s Ratched is a study in ruthless control, an iron fist clad in a velvet glove, a face of serene composure that can be transformed into a forbidding glare with barely a change of expression. Her frustrating reasonableness in the face of McMurphy and the others’ impassioned outbursts are her most effective weapon, and you get the impression that she welcomes the regular breakdown of their therapy sessions as proof of their need for her and her rules.

Ken Kesey, on whose novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was based, famously disassociated himself from Forman’s movie for a number of reasons, chief of which was Forman’s decision to relieve Chief Bromsden (Will Sampson) of the role of the story’s narrator, and Jack Nicholson barely talked to the director after creative differences, but the movie doesn’t suffer from such troubles. McMurphy’s exuberance is infectious, his uncomplicated outlook refreshing. He’s no more insane than you and I – but then neither are any of the other characters in the institute. Locked within the walls of the mental institution, imprisoned by their own irrational fears and psychoses, all but McMurphy and Taber are voluntary patients, and they provide a microcosm of society as a whole, while the incidents which take place are an exaggerated expression of the consequences of flying in the face of the rules by which we’re all governed. Forman gets the message across, even if he does upset the creator of the work on which his movie is based, and delivers a story that is both tragic and uplifting.

(Reviewed 27th August 2012)