“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” Movie Review

And this is how to make a movie that is truly deserving of Best Picture. This provocative drama from director Milos Forman and producer Michael Douglas was released by United Artists on November 9th, 1975, earning back over $100 million on a small budget of $4.4 million total. Today, it is rated as the 16th greatest movie of all time on IMDb and listed as one of the late Roger Ebert’s favorite films. Based on the controversial novel by Ken Kesey- who apparently hated the finished product –One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest recounts the story of Randle McMurphy, an ex-con who transfers to a mental hospital in order to avoid more jail time. Once there, he falls into a trance when he’s introduced to a system where patients are heavily medicated, physically abused, and treated with almost no empathy. He begins to encourage the suppressed patients to fight back against Nurse Ratched’s tyrannical, bullying rule. Recently, I read the book this film was based on as part of a course examining the most challenged novels in American literature. And yes, there are many moments where artistic license is taken with the source material by screenwriters Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman, particularly of the point-of-view with the story. But I’m not here to nitpick the differences in the adaptation, I’m here to dissect this simply as a movie on its own. And on its own, this has to be one of the best pictures released in the 1970’s. In the performance that launched his storied career, Jack Nicholson is absolutely electrifying as Randle McMurphy. This basically set the groundwork for all of his crazy roles to follow, from the Joker to Frank Costello. But none were as memorable or arguably as likable as his work in this film. Slightly older than him, Louise Fletcher is completely heartless and uncaring as Nurse Ratched. Male or female, she has to be one of the most despicable characters in film history. Her rule emulates that of any infamous world dictator, manipulating every patient and staff member with careful words. The film also features early roles from Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, and an Oscar-nominated performance from Brad Dourif as a stuttering man-child. Will Sampson as Chief Bromden, the narrator of the original book, is also worth noting. His captivating portrayal of a deaf-mute is a unique depiction of modern Native Americans and remains one of the most memorable fictional ones on the celluloid. Although sparsely present, what there is of Jack Nitzche’s score is beautiful. The film opens and ends on the same track with steady percussion and a high voice, punctuated by goosebump-inducing strings. It’s the kind of soundtrack that gives one hope for their lives and makes you want to live life to the fullest; the primary theme of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The camera work by Haskell Wexler and Bill Butler is rather dry. Often the action will be shown in short cuts of editing. Other times it will keep on one shot to emulate the feeling that we truly are inside this mental hospital. Such a moment occurs late in the picture when after a large celebration, the camera focuses in on Randle. He’s not partying, not monologuing about his past. Just a static shot of him drinking a beer while sitting down, silently smiling at his accomplishments. It is this silent simplicity that helps give this film its advantage and likability. But that doesn’t mean that One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is always fun and lighthearted. There are some moments that are so powerful that you can hardly finish. The actors and extras did a supreme job at making the environment as realistic as possible. But the portrayal of mental illness, and of the authority that tries to exploit it, is so raw and unpretentious that it sometimes borders on hard-to-watch. From challenged patients who refuse to take their medication to electroshock therapy for those who resist, the movie pulls almost no punches. Which is probably why it went on to win the Big Five Oscars. These were Academy Awards for Best Actor, Actress, Screenplay, Director, and Picture. One of the rarest feats in the Academy’s history, to win all of these categories in one night is a truly astonishing achievement. And this is a film that really did earn all of it. It also has an ending that can make you feel teary-eyed from both sadness and joy. All I can say is that you will have the feel the feeling of you were graduating. With unforgettable characters, realistic dialogue, fantastic performances and a great sense of dark optimism, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an uncompromising and captivating look at standing up to your oppressors. It may not quite be perfect as a whole, but the smaller moments are the ones that truly make it what it is. It is hard to watch sometimes and to rewatch but it’s absolutely worth it to get a better understanding of mental illness and the will to survive in the face of adversity.

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