The Good: Amazing acting, Engaging story, Wonderful DVD bonus features, Memorable characters.
The Bad: A weird obsession with zooming early in the film.
The Basics: Funny, emotionally-resonant and filled with amazing performances, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is a true classic of American cinema.
When the worst one can say about a movie is that it is annoying early in the film how the director avoids static shots by doing simple, slow pans in on the faces of characters, the film has to be pretty amazing. For me, it says something when a classic movie endures even when viewed now, but One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is a good model for perfection in that it remains as relevant, funny and engaging now as when it was released, almost thirty-five years ago. In fact, as my partner and I watched the film last night, after about twenty minutes, she frowned, sat up in bed and began watching the movie in earnest after noting, "This is MUCH better than I remember it being." I was surprised because for all of my love of American cinema, I'd only seen the last ten minutes of the film before last night.
Part of the reason this is such a surprise to me is that One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest boasts one of the most impressive casts of all time. Led by Academy Award winners Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, this was an impressive cinematic outing that also included a young Brad Dourif, Christopher Lloyd and Danny DeVito! As well, character actors Vincent Schiavelli and Michael Berryman are recognizably present. As always in such cases, this is a review of the film One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. I read the book many years ago and this is not it. The only difference I'll even bother mentioning (because the two are entirely different works of art and because it is the only one I remember) is that Nurse Ratched was characterized as having much more prominent breasts in the book.
Dr. Spivey, chief administrator of a in-patient mental institution, takes in R.P. McMurphy from a prison work farm. Initially charged with statutory rape, McMurphy arrives as a troublemaker and despite his initial characterization, he sits quietly at the morning meeting on the ward. While more vocal inmates, like Taber, rail against some of the failings of other inmates, McMurphy watches and seems content to lay low for a while among "the crazies." Soon, he is befriending and swindling the inmates and using a giant Native American Indian (rumored to be deaf and mute) to prepare to go over the gate. When the World Series comes around, McMurphy tries to challenge Nurse Ratched's routines so the men can watch the game.
In danger of being sent back to the penitentiary for not being crazy enough, McMurphy leaps the fence and takes the men of the ward on a fishing trip. This leads Ratched to redouble her efforts to maintain control on the floor of the ward and McMurphy to more openly rebel against her.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is a funny, character-driven film where the characters are all amazingly portrayed. However, the impression of some of the characters is very much based on hype or interpretation as opposed to an objective view of the source material. For example, the DVD case declares that Nurse Ratched is one of the greatest villains in cinematic history, but Ratched is coolly efficient and actually is motivated by a strong desire to do good. She keeps order on the ward and she does so without any overt cruelty until the penultimate scene of the movie when she confronts the young Billy about his actions. Until then, she is reserved, but generally reasonable. In fact, it is only when McMurphy directly challenges her authority about the change in schedule that she becomes picayune and punitive. Outside that, she is very much an archetype of a mental health professional working to better the lives of her charges.
One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is not a film where a lot happens; most of it is set within the walls of the mental ward and the trip on the boat is a notable departure in the latter half of the film. Far more what the movie is about is a man in a jam trying to organize his escape and infuse chaos into an ordered, but arguably inefficient, system. McMurphy arrives on the ward and begins carefully noting the way things are done as well as testing the holes in the security. He makes several valid points, most notably about the obsessive use of medication without real evaluation within the facility, but much of the rebellion is self-serving. McMurphy wants to watch the World Series, so he organizes the vote to change responsibilities. McMurphy wants to get laid, so he abducts his fellow wardmates and takes them to the open sea. If Ratched is supposed to be a villain, McMurphy cannot be considered a hero because his sense of purpose is so self-involved.
In many ways, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is a film where a classic Freudian interpretation works wonderfully. McMurphy is an Id, Ratched is a superego and arguments can be made about who represents the ego and what the health of that is. Largely, though, the film isn't even about a conflict between McMurphy and Ratched as it is about McMurphy challenging his fellow wardmates to not surrender to the idea that they are mentally ill in a way that needs to be fixed by institutionalization. He finds an almost immediate ally in Cheswick and soon after in the arguably-psychotic Taber. But when the film turns into a real rebellion led by McMurphy, the film turns quickly and the eruption that results leads to one of the quickest and most powerful cinematic resolutions of all time.
The acting in One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is homogeneously excellent, with Will Sampson and Sydney Lassick holding their own with the much more famous cast members. Christopher Lloyd has an auspicious outing as Taber where he carries quick reversals with a simple bugging out of his eyes or the turn of his smile. Similarly, DeVito is distinctly different than his more famous roles as Louie DePalma and he plays the quieter, more shy role of Martini with a wonderfully reserved body language.
Appropriately the winner of the Best Actress Oscar and Golden Globe, Louise Fletcher is amazing as Nurse Ratched. Having seen her for years as a political/religious villain on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine her ability to play cold and efficient is no surprise. What is surprising is how she carries herself as so humane in scenes with Dr. Spivey and how she makes her character's statement of desire to help reform McMurphy seem real and true. Fletcher is an amazing actress and as she holds her nurse's cap at the end of the film, it is hard not to feel something for her character.
And Jack Nicholson deserves the accolades he receives as McMurphy. Seldom mentioned, Nicholson (and several other actors) are required to yell throughout the movie and Nicholson throws himself into the crazed scenes with a gusto that is entirely convincing. As well, in the scenes where he plays quietly indignant or hurt, it becomes very easy to empathize with his character.
On the two-disc DVD set, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest arrives with the options of widescreen or standard viewing. As well, there is a list of all of the awards the film won and the original trailers for the film. There is a new commentary which is informative and entertaining. The second disc features a documentary that is even more extensive and includes some great outtakes from the filming of the movie. Anyone who loves to study classic films will enjoy seeing all of the featurettes on the new edition of the film.
But for those who just like to watch films, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is an amazing film which lives up to its hype for greatness, even if some of the characters are not as monolithic as the packaging would like viewers to believe!
[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, online here! Please check it out!]
For other works featuring Christopher Lloyd, be sure to check out my reviews of:
The West Wing - Season 6
The Back To The Future Trilogy
Star Trek III: The Search For Spock
For other movie reviews, be sure to check out my index page by clicking here!
© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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