One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

reviewed by
Chad Polenz


                      ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST
                       A film review by Chad Polenz
                        Copyright 1997 Chad Polenz

***1/2 (out of 4 = very good) 1975, R, 129 minutes [2 hours, 9 minutes] [drama] starring: Jack Nicholson (R.P. McMurphy), Louise Fletcher (Nurse Ratched), William Redfield (Harding), Sydney Lassick (Cheswick), written by Lawrence Hauben, Bo Goldman, produced by Saul Zaentz, directed by Milos Forman, based on the novel by Ken Kesey and the play by Dale Wasserman.

Milos Forman's "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" is good, but it should be great. It's based on a classic novel which means it should have a vivid, powerful theme, but that forms only in passing. However, what we do get is an enjoyable (and often hilarious) piece of strange human interaction with a battle against authority.

Jack Nicholson stars as R.P. McMurphy, a convict who is sane, but has faked insanity to be transferred from a prison work farm to a mental institution. When he arrives he is surprised because his fellow inmates don't seem too crazy. But McMurphy doesn't know how to deal with these people. When he tries to treat them as fellow prisoners his lack of sensitivity makes for scenes that are more funny than they are thematic.

McMurphy's fellow inmates include: Harding (Redfield), a relatively sane man who cannot get over his wife's adultery; Cheswick (Lassick), a paranoid neurotic who has no self-confidence; Tabor (Christopher Lloyd), a cynical sadist who likes to cause trouble; Martini (Danny Devito), a man with the personality of a 3-year-old; Billy (Brad Dourif), a young, stuttering paranoid whose shyness makes him deathly afraid of his mother; and "Chief" (Will Sampson), a large Native American who claims to be deaf and dumb. All in all, an excellent supportive cast.

The film is basically the story of how authority can be organized, calculated, and polished on the outside but still corrupt on the inside. The head nurse, Miss Ratched (Fletcher), represents that kind of power. She is completely unemotional and quiet, but her sternness comes across clearly. It's not what she does or what she says, but the way she says things with such totality. Unlike a prison warden, she does not use force to control her patients, but a precise system of intimidation. For example, McMurphy begs her to let them watch the World Series, but she says that would interrupt the schedule. The inmates are such slaves to Ratched that even when it is put to a vote (the first of two times), McMurphy loses.

Little happens in terms of plot. Instead, Forman opts strictly for atmosphere to establish theme. Subtle mind games between McMurphy and Ratched start to occur and become the most crucial element of the film, but does not go overboard. We also get scenes of basketball and card games that are funny because the inmates are so paranoid they usually end up fighting with each other. McMurphy even hijacks the institution's bus and takes them all on a fishing trip. He knows he won't get into any more trouble because he's just a crazy nut - right?

Although the film does an excellent job of characterization, after a while, the lack of organization becomes distracting. Some elements start to become questionable. For example, McMurphy is in a medium security institution with mostly voluntary patients which doesn't seem logical. Also, why do they complain so much if they can leave whenever they want?

Perhaps mental instability is contagious, and if so, McMurphy, along with the film, seems to become unbalanced throughout the last act. He has an opportunity to escape, but decides to throw a going away party for the ward. It certainly is interesting to see how the "mental defectives" respond to the anarchy. But everything comes to a boiling point as Nurse Ratched's control indirectly leads to the most absolute of all power - death.

"One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" is good but has even more potential. Because the film remains so lighthearted, the message isn't as poetic as it should be, but it's still fun.

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