An aspiring newcomer with big dreams of becoming a writer. I also have autism, but I don't see it as a weakness.
The movie follows Randal P MacCarthy (Jack Nicholson), a convict who gets transferred from prison to a mental institution for evaluation after pleading insanity. When he gets to the institution, he is forced to endure and witness abuse from the oppressive Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who runs the place with an iron fist and gains power through the other inmate's flaws.
MacCarthy and the others decide to band together by making a rebellious stand against the tyrannical nurse.
Jack Nicholson, Louise Flecther, Micheal Berryman, Sydney Lassick, Will Sampson, Danny Devito, Christopher Llyod, and Brad Dourif
Lawrence Hauben, Bo Goldman
Micheal Douglas, Saul Zaentz
November 19, 1975
2 hours and 13 minutes
The Era of New Hollywood
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest came out during the 1970s in a filmmaking era called New Hollywood. This was a movement during the 1960s and 70s where passionate filmmakers like George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola challenged the status quo. These filmmakers brought a radical and independent perspective to mainstream cinema.
Films like The Godfather (1972), Network (1976), The French Connection (1971), and Dog Day Afternoon (1975) did not only win awards at the Oscars, but they have remained great films that stood the test of time since they came out. And One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was no exception.
I previously covered Taxi Driver, the Robert De Niro/Martin Scorsese magnum opus that explored the dark side of humanity through its harsh setting of New York City. It was released in the same year Cuckoo's Nest came out, making 1975 a special year in cinema.
This is a special kind of movie to me. Not only does this movie reflect the era of the New Hollywood age during the 1970s, but it also reflects its place in cinema. It's a movie that shows a filmmaker at his peak with a challenging story being told on-screen with terrific direction, a beautiful screenplay, and legendary performances from its lead actors. This movie is cinema at its finest.
The movie starts with a great establishing shot of the outskirts of Salem, Oregon. With a car coming to the Oregon State Mental Hospital, we see Nurse Ratched preparing for work. The patients are getting ready for their daily routine. It seems like they're going to have a normal day at the hospital. In the first four minutes, everything seems quiet and peaceful.
That is until Randal McMurphy arrives.
When we first meet McMurphy at the start of the film, he's already relieved to have arrived at the ward. He interacts with the patients when they are doing their card game, discusses the reasons for coming to the ward with the doctor, and his crimes (although given his response to the statutory rape charge, I take it's the reason to have him committed). McMurphy is trying to make the most out of being in this ward because he sees it as a way of avoiding prison.
The film's opening minutes does a great job at setting up the protagonist and antagonist of the story. Randal McMurphy is the main character, but he's not the squeaky clean hero we come to expect. He's loud, rebellious, and expresses his sexuality a lot (if you know what I mean). He's pretty much the rebel going up against society with a sharp sense of humor.
Nurse Ratched, the main antagonist of the story, is the exact opposite of McMurphy. She's cold, tyrannical, and deceitful in every sense of the word. She dehumanizes anyone who opposes her and oppresses those who challenge her. Although she's a professional at her job, her methods are questionable, to say the least. She's pretty much the embodiment of society's oppression in a mechanical manner.
From there, the movie plays out like an internal battle between who's the leader. With Nurse Ratched trying to keep everything under control, McMurphy starts some trouble along the way. And he does this by caring about the other patients, something that Ratched has never done in the ward.
McMurphy inspires the patients to live out their lives and not be contracted to what other people think of them. It plays into the theme of not being what society wants you to be. You have to be able to live your life in your own way.
A prime example of this is the ball game scene.
It's hard to review this movie without talking about the performances because they are great. The performances are on the level of seeing the characters and not the actors playing them. And that's due to the commitment of its cast.
The Rise of Jack Nicholson
Jack Nicholson is great as McMurphy. This role was already a big deal for him since he had Easy Rider and Chinatown under his belt. But this is the type of role that revealed his range as an actor. And given that this was his first Oscar win for Best Actor, Nicholson was already on the path of giving out legendary performances throughout his career.
The Coldness of Nurse Ratched
Louise Fletcher is amazing in her Oscar-winning role as the tyrannical Nurse Ratched. You instantly hate the character on screen when she appears. She's cold, calculating, and deceitful every step of the way. And what's great about her is that she's not some comical villain. She's a cold-hearted woman who takes pleasure in exploiting people while hiding behind a professional persona.
The supporting cast playing the patients is memorable as well. With a pre-famous Danny Devito having a small part and Christopher Llyod in his first role before Back to the Future (1985), they make a good impression with their parts. Seeing this movie after Back to the Future, I wouldn't be surprised if it was Emmet Brown before he became a scientist.
The two performances that stuck out to me the most are Will Sampson as Chief Broman and Brad Dourif as Billy Bibbit.
Will Sampson as Cheif Broman
Sampson disappears in the role of Cheif Broman. The growing bond between him and McMurphy is believable. They play off well by being opposites of each other. With Broman being silent & calm and McMurphy being loud & out there, it makes their foil more believable.
Dourif as Billy Bitts
Brad Dourif is believable as Billy Bitts. Although he is best known for playing Chucky in the Child's Play franchise, it's easy to forget this movie was his first breakout hit when he was 26 years old; he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. And he knocks it out of the park.
The way he stutters and speaks is flawless. It's the type of role that could easily suck if it was miscast, but Dourif pulls it beautifully.
He has a well-defined arc throughout the movie. He goes from a shy, insecure person to a mature young man standing up to Ratched. It's this and his small bond with McMurphy that makes him an enduring character. After losing his virginity to Candy after the ward party, Nurse Ratched questions Billy with authority and asks if he's ashamed of doing it. Billy answers no, not stuttering when he speaks. It's this moment that shows the character's evolution and Dourif's range as an actor.
And it also makes the film's final moments tragic and dark once you see what her words pushed him to do after that.
Even without its strong performances and subtle storytelling, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is also a well-made film.
The film's cinematography is subtle in its use of framing. The shot of Nurse Ratched looking through the window as McMurphy plays basketball with the Chief is haunting. It's symbolic of Ratched's twisted need for control being interrupted by the rebellious McMurphy, who is instilling some inspiration into the patients.
Its use of shots and lighting should be praised as well.
McMurphy and the patients are reveling in imagining the ball game happening on the TV. While this is happening, Nurse Ratched is trying to restore order, and the camera zooms in on her behind the glass. The frustration and paranoia are visible on her face. The patient's fun and joy are shot at a wide angle. This moment shows two things: Nurse Ratched losing control of the patients and McMurphy's influence of happiness and freedom over their lives.
The film's lighting shows a progression in tone as the story progresses. When McMurphy arrives at the ward, the lighting is very natural. The shadows are less visible on characters' faces with the lighting being soft. It shows the light tone of the first two halves. But as the film goes into its final moments, shadows and blacks become stronger and visible in the ward, showing the dark turn that the movie has taken.
An example of this is the famous final scene. It's a difficult watch.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is one of my favorite films. It is the high watermark of filmmaking in the 1970s. It is a modern masterpiece that has stood the test of time since its release. I'm giving this movie five out of five stars.
Theodore Turnquest II (author) from Lakeland, Florida on April 29, 2021:
Iqra from East County on April 29, 2021:
This remains one of the greatest films of all time for its tonally perfect examination of power, authoritarianism, oppression, mental illness, morality, and more. Thanks for sharing the review Theodore