One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) Review

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)
Director: Miloš Forman
Screenwriters: Lawrence Hauben, Bo Goldman
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Louise Fletcher, William Redfield, Will Sampson, Danny DeVito, Brad Dourif, Christopher Lloyd, Scatman Crothers, Sydney Lassick

For anyone concerned with the Oscars, this is one of the big ones. One of only three films in the Academy’s history to win the big five (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay – in this case, Adapted Screenplay), along with It Happened One Night (1934) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest brings together an incredible blend of perfect performances, heart, and a little bit of tension to go with it. Jack Nicholson is Randal McMurphy, a prison inmate who fakes insanity to get out of serving his time doing hard labour. Transferred to a mental institution, he quickly becomes the ringleader for a colourful cast of other inmates, but runs smack into the cold hard wall of Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who will do anything to maintain her iron dogma and cool order on the ward.

Director Miloš Forman grew up under the communist regime in Czechoslovakia, and took on the project essentially saying that he knew the story so well because he had already lived through the film. The hopeful ending of one escape from the cold clutches of steely rule is what every boy in Czechoslovakia dreamed of, he later said in interviews. So indeed it seems the Douglas family (with Michael Douglas producing) picked the right person to direct the film, after trying to get it made for over a decade (including putting on a theatre version of the play in the 60s). The directing isn’t flashy, but simple, solid, and understated, working perfectly for a film whose story isn’t about dramatic pyrotechnics, but a kind of war of words, a battle of wills for the souls of those unable to fight back.

Backing those two corners in this fight, Jack Nicholson’s McMurphy and Louise Fletcher’s Ratched are perfectly embodied. One, the element of chaos, and the other the iron rule of calm, regimented evil. As McMurphy says of her, “She likes a crooked game.” She almost never raises her voice save for one or two instances, and it is a testament to Fletcher’s incredible acting that the apparent ‘good guy’, if one remembers that McMurphy is technically a criminal imprisoned for statutory rape, is made to be the villain of the piece. Indeed, one almost forgets that McMurphy is a criminal, such is the power of Fletcher’s cold stare and her even tone, and Nicholson’s power of sheer charisma.

That they managed to rope together an impeccable cast with future stalwarts like Christopher Lloyd (Doc Brown in Back to the Future), Danny DeVito, and Brad Dourif (Chucky from Child’s Play, Grima Wormtongue in The Lord of the Rings) is something that only happens once in a blue moon. Like a strike of lightning, the whole cast embody pent up mischief, a desire for release. Were it not for this chemistry between the cast, the later scenes would be nowhere near as traumatising.

Speaking of those scenes, the infamous electric shock scene is one of the most disturbing scenes ever put to screen. The build-up is flawless, the shots correctly chosen for inflicting maximum trauma. The God’s-eye shot of Nicholson lying down on the bed, complying to bite down on the plastic to stop him biting his tongue, keeps us there, unable to look away. He might be a criminal, but what they do to try and stop insurrection is inhumane, and Forman doesn’t allow us to avert our gaze as he convulses in pain and torture. We must watch, because this is the important part. The game is crooked, and nobody gets out without consequences.

It is this mix of elation and horror that so exquisitely works for One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Any film set on a mental health ward has to turn to this one to see what they want to keep and what they want to do differently. Anyone who wants to play crazy has to go to Nicholson’s performance here (Stephen King didn’t want Nicholson to play Jack Torrance in The Shining because people would know him as a crazy right from the start thanks to this film, and so the unfolding madness of his film would be undermined as a result). Anyone who wants to play the unflinching, sly cruelty in someone’s heart when they’re in power must go to Fletcher’s Ratched. Anyone who wants to know how to bring camaraderie to a group penned in, be it a war film or otherwise, looks to the writing in this film, the basketball games, the trip out on the boat, the sneaking-in of Candy to the ward late at night.

It’s a film for the ages, plain and simple. Immortal, its story will never age. It has stood for nearly fifty years and will undoubtedly stand for fifty more.

Score: 23/24

Rating: 5 out of 5.

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