One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest tells the tale of a penny ante convict looking to who ends up in a psych ward instead of a prison. Whether Randle McMurphy (played by Jack Nicholson in one the roles that made Jack Jack) actually needs psychiatric help is left for the viewer to divine. Not that it really matters, McMurphy is the kind of impulsive yet strong-willed character who will always clash with institutional authority.
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.