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One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a 1975 American drama film directed by Miloš Forman and based on the 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey. The film was the second to win all five major Academy Awards (Best Picture, Actor in Lead Role, Actress in Lead Role, Director, and Screenplay) following It Happened One Night in 1934, an accomplishment not repeated until 1991 by The Silence of the Lambs. The film is #20 on the American Film Institute's 100 Years... 100 Movies list. It was shot at Oregon State Hospital in Salem, Oregon, which was also the setting of the novel. In 1963 Oregon, Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), a recidivist anti-authoritarian criminal serving a short sentence on a prison farm for statutory rape of a 15-year-old girl, is transferred to a mental institution for evaluation. Although he does not show any overt signs of mental illness, he hopes to avoid hard labor and serve the rest of his sentence in a more relaxed hospital environment. McMurphy's ward is run by steely, unyielding Nurse Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who employs subtle humiliation, unpleasant medical treatments and a mind-numbing daily routine to suppress the patients.
What can go wrong in a mental ward? Everything if you're Randle McMurphy, even if you're not purposely trying to make things go wrong. The source of the conflict is Nurse Ratched. Whether the name is supposed to remind us of wretched or her mechanical nature is up for debate, but Louise Fletcher plays the role both ways. Nurse Ratched may be a cold, mechanical automaton intent on sucking the joy and individuality from all the people that surround her but still the viewer pities Nurse Ratched, we can tell that things don't get any better for her when she clocks out of work.
A fiercely individualistic Randall with a wonky yet unyielding moral compass forced into the same confines as the deplorable Nurse Ratched? The table is set for an epic battle of wills. For most movies that would be enough. Randall v. Ratched: The Stare Down in Crazy Town. But Cuckoo's Nest isn't most movies; it isn't the easy way out.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest avoids the expected by introducing a myriad of subplots centered on the other patients. There are seemingly too many subplots going to keep up with. How can we be expected to care about a silent giant Indian, a stuttering sex starved teen (among others), plus Randall and Nurse Ratched all at the same time?
With a great script and great direction (by Milos Forman) it turns out you can care about more than two characters. You'll find yourself as emotionally invested in Chief as you are in Randall, and you'll empathize with Billy Bibbit in an amount equal to your loathing of Nurse Ratched.
With Cuckoo's Nest there is a constant temptation to turn the movie into a philosophical statement. Is the movie really about the individual versus the system? A screed about the denial of personal humanity? A treatise on the finer points of the golden rule? A condemnation of a bygone era of Freudian psychology? Viable interpretations all, perhaps, but questions that miss the heart of Cuckoo's Nest. At the most fundamental level the movie is just a great story that is told very well.
There are no obvious (or even minuscule) flaws in Cuckoo's Nest, the film is full of great moments (prepare to watch Randall work the floor for votes to watch a World Series game several times) but be prepared for a break from the standard Hollywood offerings. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest manages to be very depressing and uplifting at the same time. If you have a soul, you'll both laugh and feel your throat tighten. If you read a synopsis of the movie you'll think it is nothing special, just Jack chewing the scenery, but if you take the time to watch the movie you'll realize you're looking at a cinema classic.
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