“I must be crazy to be in a loony bin like this.”
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a film based on the novel by Ken Kesey about mental illness in the 1960s, is driven by a brilliant storyline and phenomenal acting by every single member of the cast.
The plot is of a dreary mental institution that gets a rollicking shock when R.P. McMurphy is transferred from prison after claiming insanity. Though he is not seemingly mentally sick like the other patients, he is possibly the best thing that ever happened to them; giving excitement and vitality to a place so deprived of any any.
Under the impression that he can get up and leave whenever he pleases, he becomes the ward’s leader, taking them on field trips, riling them up against Nurse Ratched and infecting everyone with his crazy recklessness and brave frankness. He soon learns however that the hospital has the power to keep him there, forever if they wish; a disturbing thought. What started as an entertaining film that even supplied a few laughs quickly becomes unsettling and hard to watch.
Towards the end, a window opens (quite literally) and McMurphy has the chance to escape but he throws it away when he instead spends the night drinking and partying with the other patients. The nurses arrive in the morning and find the ward completely wrecked from the night’s escapades. The scene ends with McMurphy attempting to strangle Nurse Ratched (as I silently cheered considering what a vile character she was). He is taken away and as more time passes with him still absent rumors fly about his whereabouts as the ward once again returns to it’s lifeless state without him. The ending is a massive and completely unanticipated shock, so I won’t ruin it but I will say it left me with a heavy heart and a sick stomach.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest contains some of the greatest acting I have ever seen. Every performance, however small or leading, is flawless and utterly believable. Jack Nicholson creates a vulgar and crazy character that despite his flaws is easy to like and you can’t help but root for him. Similar to Nicholson’s roles in The Departed and The Shining, he plays yet another slightly deranged character. The supporting cast is also phenomenal. Brad Dourif’s performance of Billy is as heartbreaking as it is believable and Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched evolves from a slightly unlikable character to an absolutely detestable one. It was nominated for three acting Oscars and won two but the entire cast should have received honors for their performances.
The production design, cinematography, etc is simple; camouflaged details that let the script and actors shine to create a masterpiece. There is one shot however that I absolutely love. When McMurphy is first brought into he hospital, the camera pans, looking up a spiral staircase with patients in white robes staring down; the image is the poster child of creepy mental hospitals and sets the tone of the film.
Of the nine it was up for, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest took home five Oscars at the 1976 Academy Awards, including the major awards best picture, best actor and actress in a leading role and best director as well as best screenplay. They were all fully deserved.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest took place some 50 years ago and many advances have been made since, but it’s a powerful reminder of the struggle with mental illness that is still present today. Though it’s tough to watch at times and deals with an important yet dismal subject it’s an exceptional movie; truly a classic piece of cinema.