So I watched One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest…
As always procrastination is King in my life and film is the King’s favourite sacrifice. So instead of actually sitting down and studying for my Psych final, I thought it would be better to sit down and watch a film about people in a psychiatric hospital. I mean, that comes up in tests right?
Okay, basic plot: Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) – a chronic offender – is transferred from prison to a mental institution to be evaluated for possible mental illness. McMurphy is a hooligan who’s thought to be faking his symptoms in order to escape the hard labour of prison life. McMurphy makes it his mission to tear apart the hospital he’s been evaluated in and have as much fun as possible. This causes him to come to blows with Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) – the steely head of the ward who’s more than prepared to go toe-to-toe with the wild McMurphy.
This film disappointed and enthralled me in equal parts. It is a funny movie with great entertainment value but it isn’t the explorative look into mental illness that I thought it would be. I thought its humour and story would be crafted from the mental illness – and subsequent symptoms – that its characters suffered from. I didn’t expect this to be an informative feature that would leave me with a deeper understanding of psychiatry; but I did expect a humorous look at disorders of the mind. The film is funny but it doesn’t make full use of the fact that it’s set in a psychiatric hospital. The humour is far too vague and so generalised that you wonder why the setting was even chosen?
Another glaring problem this film has is that its characters lack definition. They become swept up in the comedy and events of the film, so much so, that they never become memorable. With the exception of Nurse Ratched and McMurphy, the rest of the characters are nothing but caricatures of their respective diagnoses. Unfortunately, as mentioned above, since the film doesn’t explore or showcase the world of psychiatry, these caricatures implode and add nothing to the story.
It’s such a shame because this film’s cast is terrific! This is a role handmade for Jack Nicholson. The brash, arrogant, bordering on insane quality of the character is perfectly suited to Nicholson’s acting style. Nicholson has always had this wonderful ability to play a sleazy character but still make him likeable and charming while never losing the menace of the character. Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched is also another standout who brought tremendous amounts of life to the blunted character. Ratched is a very miserly and passive-aggressive kind of person and if Fletcher had miscalculated she could have come across as apathetic instead of cold and steely. Luckily Fletcher walks the line perfectly and her and Nicholson are good value for their Academy Award wins.
The Academy Awards didn’t stop at the acting with Miloš Forman picking up a statuette for his work in the Director’s chair; and Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman winning for their script. This film is a little over two hours long but the work these three put in makes that time fly by in a breeze. Hauben and Goldman write a screenplay that is funny and engaging while Forman creates a film that is evenly-paced and constantly in motion. I will say, however, there are times when the film feels like it lacks direction.You’re never quite sure what McMurphy’s end goal is but maybe that’s the point. He’s a rebel without a cause; a man destined to destroy himself through self-destructive and self-gratifying behaviour.
Overall, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a film that’s as good as it bad. Fortunately, the moments where the film is brilliant more than make up for its flaws. It’s extremely funny and Jack Nicholson gives one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. It’s worth watching but don’t break your back trying to get it.
2 thoughts on “Classic Movie Thursday: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Review”
I love every part of this movie. While a psychiatric ward is the setting, I don’t think it was ever meant to be about mental illness. Given the time in which it was made and the then-current state of the country, I’ve always viewed this movie as a metaphor for the revolution that always seemed on the verge of erupting in the early 70s. The ward itself is simply the country. Nurse Ratched is the establishment. She’s here to make sure the rules are followed and keep everyone in their place. The patients are the restless masses, tired of the way things are being done, recognizing flaws in the system, and desperately wanting to bring about a change. Having Nicholson’s character with a vague objective keeps it open and adaptable to any number of causes that were being taken up at the time. It’s far more about sticking it to the man than about exploring mental illness. Granted, the passage of time makes that hard to see for people watching it for the first time, but it’s always the way I’ve viewed it.
Hmmm that’s an interesting and insightful interpretation of things. I’d always heard the name ‘Nurse Ratched’ used to describe a firm, authoritative figure but I’d never understood the reference until I watched this movie. I think context is an interesting thing because now I’m viewing this film in a whole new light. I still think it’s a classic either way but maybe it’s because my mind was so caught up in the field of Psychiatry because I was spending so much time in Psych wards but I would have liked the setting of the hospital to be better used. When I re-watch it, it’ll be through new eyes definitely.