“But I tried, didn’t I? Goddamnit, at least I did that.”
The Academy Awards aren’t always an indicator of a great film, but very often they are. Particularly if a film sweeps all five major categories (Best Picture, Actor, Actress, Director, and Screenplay) as only three films have done, you know you’re dealing with a piece of quality cinema. Of course, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one such film, and it is undoubtedly a terrific piece of film. Based on the 1962 novel of the same name by Ken Kesey (one of my personal favorites), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an adaptation that holds the message of the source material as sacred to the story of the film. The performances couldn’t be better, and all the pieces align in such a way that this is a movie set for long-term greatness. It’s one of the greatest movies of the 1970s and likely the greatest film which has ever touched on its complex subject matter.
Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is a wisecracking criminal convicted of statutory rape, sent to a mental institution after showing signs of mental illness. In order to avoid the hard labor and rough atmosphere of the prison system, McMurphy feigns signs of “crazy” in order to get himself admitted. He comes to meet a slew of over patients, each facing their own mental obstacles, and he becomes an inspirational leader among them. He teaches them games, plans a getaway fishing trip, and helps them stand up to the towering, authoritarian nurse of the ward, the infamous Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). As McMurphy faces off against Ratched for the control of the ward, he comes to realize the cruelty and inhumanity in place at the mental institution itself and the effect this has on the patients. It’s a humorous, inspiring, terrifying, unsettling, wonderful story which never ceases to entertain.
I find that the success of the film can be attributed to the innovation and passion of the source material. The story itself, which follows closely with Kesey’s novel, is a masterfully-crafted piece of fiction that translates beautifully to the screen. Every character is fully realized, and we come to root for every patient in the ward. It’s fun to see Danny DeVito play Martini, a delusional man who can’t quite fit in with reality like everyone else but keeps a smile on his face regardless. Then there’s the “Chief” (Will Bromden), a mute man of Native American descent who becomes one of McMurphy’s closest companions and brings the film its most powerful scene. As an audience, perhaps the most dismal shift comes when we realize that Nurse Ratched doesn’t want these people to get better. All these characters that we’ve come to love, whose obstacles we want to see overcome – Ratched just wants power over them. It brings the film from a silly Jack Nicholson feature to a heartbreaking piece of cinema. The film implores its audience to wonder if there’s a clear distinction between sane and insane, or is it just that the people in power get to draw the line themselves? Thematically, the movie pulls no punches, and it conveys Kesey’s original message wholeheartedly to the audience.
On a cinematic level, the film is wildly entertaining if only for the battle of wits between Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher. While Nicholson brings such an uncensored, human approach to his character, who just wants to be happy and make others happy, Fletcher plays the opposite. Her cold, reserved approach to Nurse Ratched feels sinister for how safe it is. Her power comes from her reservedness. As an audience, you just keep waiting for her to lose her cool, and there’s power in this restraint. While Nicholson’s character has his flaws, you want to see him succeed against such a cruel force as Nurse Ratched. Not only on a personal level between the two characters, but his little victories over her feel massive because they seem to work against an entire system. Ratched represents the institution itself, which holds power over the weak through rules and regulation, while Nicholson seems to symbolize freedom from all of it. He encourages his fellow patients to try and free themselves, whether in ways big or small. In the way that it’s always fun to root for the underdog, Nicholson is really up against the odds as he attempts to challenge a colossal institution of oppression using only his wit and charm.
When you talk about movies that have achieve greatness, and this is a film that surely has, one key ingredient is heart. When adapting source material, this is particularly important. Good filmmakers achieve thematic excellence when they treat their adaptations with care and respect. This is a film about beloved characters and their struggle for strength and freedom, but it’s also a film that implores its audience to change their way of thinking. Mental illness is a tough subject to explore through any medium, but this is a movie that actually does so with a lot of laughs. Very few films can invest their audience in such a way that this one does, and it makes for an entertaining, thought-provoking piece of cinema. It’s a powerful film that put countless smiles on my face, so I’ll even call it a masterpiece.
Films Left to Watch: 923