Jack Nicholson stars as R.P. McMurphy, who swings a transfer from prison to a mental institution, hoping for an easier life. However, when he is confronted with the oppressive nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) and her resigned patients, he realises how hard it will be to break the rules and live free.
Miloš Forman directed this film that truly epitomises everything that is great about 70s cinema, the unusual setting and even more peculiar characters make for the kind and calibre of movie not seen in any decade since.
Focusing on neglected members of society, the mentally ill, this film shows how the carers can be more dangerous than those they supposedly look after. Fletcher plays one of the most dislikeable antagonists ever to (dis)grace the silver screen, the stubborn nurse who’s a stickler for routine and will remind any viewer of their most hated school teacher.
McMurphy’s assessment of his tormentor, ‘she’s something of a c**t, ain’t she doc?’ is spot on. Ratched ranks up there with Kathy Bates’ obsessive fan in Misery and Paul Dano’s character in pretty much any film he’s in.+
But it is Nicholson, as always, who steals the show. The most memorable moments; where McMurphy narrates the world series in front of a static television, or when the patients hijack a sailboat, are carried by Nicholson’s stage presence and range of expression, vital most in his final scene. His big break came the year before Cuckoo’s Nest, playing a hard-nosed detective in Chinatown, and he’s had no problems bagging major roles since, but this film is his greatest success. McMurphy’s enduring spirit and love of life animates the movie from start to tragic end.
Look out, as well, for Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd, who played two of McMurphy’s fellow patients before they made it big with other ventures. The supporting cast really holds the film together, as it is all about them, and their awakening to the injustice of the system of control under which they exist.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a bitter sweet, though ultimately life affirming film, with a message that spoke to the audience of the time but may unfortunately be less applicable today; ‘Rules? Piss on your fucking rules!