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  • Manny Labram

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, 1975 - Review

Updated: Jan 31

"What do you think you are, for Christ sake, crazy or somethin'?"

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is Miloš Forman’s 1975 cult classic psychological drama. The story is of chaotic convicted felon Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) as a newly admitted patient at a mental institution. McMurphy maintains his insanity to the asylum workers in order to avoid imprisonment. He comes into conflict when he meets Nurse Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher), a woman of great order and tyranny, and the authoritative administrator of the ward McMurphy has found himself on.

The film is widely regarded as one of the greatest ever made, a praise it very much deserves. It poses several philosophical questions and theories - Which discipline is best suited to man, order or chaos? If one is able to convince you they are insane, does that in fact make them insane? And, to what extent can we give people with severe mental disorders freedom until that freedom proves detrimental to their wellbeing?

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest lives up to its name to great effect. Flying over the cuckoo’s nest is a phrase used to suggest that someone has gone insane, “cuckoo” being slang for crazy. And sure enough, that is an accurate description of the film. However, taking a closer look at its title, if this phrase was to be taken literally and in the context of birds, i.e. a cuckoo bird, to fly over the nest would be seen as a sign of growth. A chick maturing enough to take flight and leave its nest is a sign that it has become independent, free of its reliance on its mother’s protection and guidance. This line of thinking goes against the phrase’s negative connotations that to act freely and independently is a sign of insanity, which ends up being an overarching message of the film.

It seems clear that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest plot aims to demonstrate the spectrum between order and chaos. It walks a thin line between film entertainment and an uncomfortable, but honest reflection of mental institutions/the human psyche on a whole. The film opens with a scenic shot of the Oregan farmland landscape, the location of the mental institution of which McMurphy attends, as the opening credits roll. The mystic Native American styled background track, the bronze wheat fields blowing in the wind, the dawn sky, and the stoic hill in the background, instantly give the viewer a strong feeling of freedom. And it is this feeling of freedom, and the question of what it truly is and how it can be experienced in a non-destructive way, is in my view, the primary function of the film.

We then get our first comparison between order and chaos. The camera guides us through the mental institution where we are briefly introduced to Nurse Ratched, the embodiment of order. Dressed in a formal all black outfit, she walks through the corridor with authority and respect, as emphasised when the other employees greet her with a cordial “Good morning, Ms Ratched.” The well-behaved, formal tone is out the window when one staff member greets Bancini (Josip Ellic), who is tied to a hospital bed. The greeting is much more casual and friendly, but somewhat condescending. In this first evaluation of order and chaos we can see that being perceived as orderly will grant you respect, comfort, and power. Whilst being seen as chaotic will only grant you inferiority, discomfort, and subordination.

We’re then introduced to Randal McMurphy, one of the most captivating and unique characters ever written. An energetic rebel, McMurphy is One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s embodiment of chaos, and our anti-hero protagonist. McMurphy impatiently sits in Dr. Spivey’s (Dean R. Books) office, awaiting evaluation. As the Doctor gives a bleak overview and analysis of his new patient, he lists McMurhy’s numerous felonies and villainous characteristics; 5 arrests for assault, statutory rape of a 15 year old girl, talks when unauthorised, and a resentful attitude towards work, amongst other things. McMurphy replies with a few witty quips and flawed logic, responding “Five fights, huh. Rocky Marciano had 40 and he’s a millionaire.”

The interaction between Dr. Spivey and McMurphy also acts as the first headbutt between order and chaos. It’s interesting to note that McMurphy is very much the protagonist of the film. He’s eccentric, unyielding to authority, charming, bold, witty, assertive. But most important of all he is free minded. These characteristics in the right context can be seen as favourable, however in the context of McMurphy who is a felon, we can also see their hazardous effects if these characteristics are left unchecked. And McMurphy certainly does not check these characteristics. In real life, he is an unlikable character and menace to society, who quite rightly, should remain imprisoned. But yet, in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest he is portrayed as a liberated bird, free and able to upset authority and do as he pleases.

A free bird is just one of the hats McMurphy wears in the film. Another is the hat of the unbiased observer of the mental institution.

My favourite scene of the film is also the first time McMurphy wears this hat. The scene begins with McMurphy, as well as several of the more able minded patients of the institution, sitting in a circle undergoing a therapy session conducted by Nurse Ratched. She reminds the group of the topic of the previous session, an issue one of the patients, Dale Harding (William Redfield), has with his wife in which he suspects her of cheating on him. Nurse Ratched goes around the circle asking several of the patients if they’d like to kick things off. Each in turn declines to answer. On the surface, it appears Nurse Ratched is justly pushing the patients to converse in healthy therapeutic conversation. However, McMurphy, and us, looks around and sees overwhelming discomfort manifesting from the patients. Circling back to whom topic of the previous session concerned, Nurse Ratched finally lands on well-spoken and philosophical Dale Harding (William Redfield) to begin the session. Nurse Ratched presses Harding to consider whether his suspicions of his wife’s infidelity were due to an impatience caused by her inability to meet his “mental requirements.”, to which McMurphy, again acting as the audience, seems to justly consider. Harding then goes into a philosophical spiel on the juxtaposition of human interpersonal relationships, at which he is challenged by fellow patient Taber (Christopher Lloyd) at which a heated argument between several of other patients against Harding takes place. Like us, McMurphy is entranced by the exaggerated but intriguing argument of Harding, but is also entertained by Taber and the others' dismissal along with their well-placed insults. The scene erupts with many of the patients losing control of themselves by shouting over each other, and going into intense states of panic, before one is taken out of the room. McMurphy witnesses first hand the destructive results of when the patients are given ‘freedom’. He takes a look back at Nurse Ratched, the instigator of this ruckus and boiling emotions, who delivers a cold, blank stare.

This scene sets the tone for the entire film. McMurphy goes on to rebel against Nurse Ratched’s dictatorship; he makes a fuss over the humdrum classical music that drowns out any chance of conversation on the ward, he fights for the World Series to be put on TV for him and his fellow patients to watch, he steals a bus to take himself and the others fishing, and in the end throws a party with prostitutes in the institution. In these instances Nurse Ratched counters grow more and more ferocious. Initially, she prevails with fair argument, albeit smug, that these requests are not to the benefit of the majority of patients. She then goes on to use ‘shock’ therapy to try and tame the wild McMurphy, before finally using her ultimate weapon - lobotomisation.

Perhaps the only thing above One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’s engaging plot, unique characters, and philosophical underlying messages, is the film’s incredible casting. Jack Nicholson gives a career defining performance as Randle McMurphy. He is charismatic, chaotic, cheeky, and charming, all at the same time. This perturbing, but alluring energy is very much needed for the film to work as his character is very much, on the surface, not very likeable. The role of McMurphy feels as though it could have only been played to this level of success by Nicholson. He was able to convince me his character was indeed insane quickly and comfortably. Having seen a majority of Nicholson’s successful movie appearances, I would agree with most that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is his best performance.

Louise Fletcher as Nurse Mildred Ratched is worthy of all the praise and accolades she has received. She is cold, by the book, and just as unrelenting as Nicholson’s character. Interestingly, many count Nurse Ratched as one of the most villainous and hated film characters of all time. In my view, and I think to Louise Fletcher’s acting credit, I felt some sympathy for her character. It seemed to me as though, although her methods harsh and verging on inhumane, it seemed to be for the greater good. This is exemplified when, in response to the question of whether McMurphy is indeed insane and should be kept on the ward, the nurse responds “I’d like to keep him on the ward. I think we can help him.” Though this could be interpreted as her way of maintaining control over McMurphy, her determination to maintain order is admirable.

The supporting cast almost steal the show. In Louise Fletcher’s acceptance speech for Best Actress at the 1976 Oscars, she perfectly sums up their incredible performance - “professionalism, humour, and capacity for getting into their roles made being in a mental institution like being in a mental institution.”

Through silence, stuttering, hyperactiveness, overzealous arguing, childlike tantrums, and a genuine display of humanity, Chief (Will Sampson), Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif), Charlie Cheswick (Sydney Lassick), Max Taber (Christopher Lloyd), and Martini (Danny DeVito), are flawless in their efforts to create a turbulent atmosphere throughout the film. The only time I’ve seen such an uncomfortable but honest portrayal of a mental institution is in Bronson, 2008. But in comparison, the level of depth One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest delivers is unmatched. We don’t see the supporting cast as mental defects, but as real people with the same human desires as us.

There are not many negative comments I can give One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It certainly achieves its underlying philosophical messaging in a thought-provoking and engaging way. I found it incredibly entertaining from start to finish. The dialogue is great and inspiring. The score fits well. Perhaps my only critique is that by having such an abundance of flawed and extreme characters, viewers may find the film is slightly difficult to get into. It is somewhat difficult to back the protagonist McMurphy given his criminal history. And his actions, though an effort to rouse the patients into accepting their own human nature, is still by definition rebellious. However, these points I think only add to the film overall and help the viewer decide what it is to be sane and what it means to have complete freedom.

In closing, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a cinematic masterpiece. Arriving at the halfway point of the decade, it perfectly encapsulates 70s America’s libertarian revolution. Especially the film’s closing scene, which is one of the greatest endings to a film of all time. There is a quiet drum of chaos pounding throughout the film. And at any time it can bang into a great orchestra of madness. Today, it is generally more accepted that everyone has a little crazy to them, which makes McMurphy’s famous question, and one of the film’s underlying messages “Which one of you nuts has got any guts?” even more profound.

Overall rating - 9.2/10

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