Lise’s review published on Letterboxd:
Everyone kept telling me that Jack Nicholson was fantastic in this film, and to my ears they were saying that Jack was being all The Shining only worse because this time he was in an asylum. Not being a huge Jack fan and actually despising Jack-doing-his-shtick, what people thought was praise was actually confirmation that I should never watch this film, classic be damned.
There are at least two other assumption I carried into this first viewing. I had seen little bits and pieces throughout my life, when my parents watched it on TV. I knew there was a riot scene (turns out it was the patients 'watching' the baseball game) and I knew that there was a nurse from hell.
So, I was expecting 2+ hours of Jack being all crazy in an American movie about a bunch of loud people jumping and yelling and a bitch nurse who whips them all into submission. They probably all end up getting shock therapy and become zombies in the end, with the Nurse smiling at her handiwork. I'd rather watch Rambo 32: Forgot his Smokes in 'Nam.
My first impression of this film is thus heavily influenced by those assumptions. The fact that this is the Jack of Five Easy Pieces and not The Shining made me so happy the film could have been crap and I still would have given it high marks. The psychos aren't psychos at all, and the bitch Nurse is as far from a typical bitch Nurse as you can get. It was an extra bonus that the film had a story, and a good one. All in, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was as far from crap as you can get.
The film was surprisingly textured and complex. One layer has the simple tale of one very sane man's stay at a mental institution and his attempts to inject a bit of fun and humanity in those he sees as dead men walking. Beneath this, however, lies the robust fact that most of the institution's patients are there to get the help they feel they need. R.P. McMurphy (Nicholson) keeps hitting that wall throughout the film and we can see him trying to make sense of it. Given his outgoing personality, it is unfathomable to him that his new friends aren't like him, that what they are there for aren't mild idiosyncrasies but deep rooted issues. McMurphy is forced to finally acknowledge this and the shock he displays is very real. That isn't to say that his gregariousness and lightness don't affect the other patients. Most of the film's runtime is spent showing how his joie de vivre and rebellious nature rub off on the others. But throughout there is a layer of darkness, a sort of "don't push me too far" attitude that McMurphy encounters from everyone, the patients as well as the staff.
It reflects brilliantly the question we pose ourselves every once in a blue moon: Is it better to gloss over deep issues to enjoy life as much as possible and live lightly, or is it better to 'know thyself' fully and completely, darkness and all, to examine the 'unbearable lightness of being' in order to live a meaningful life? Of course these aren't mutually exclusive, but they come awful close. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's nest adds the additional hardship of possibly losing the ability to think on the question at all. I think this is what McMurphy can't quite comprehend during his stay at the institution, and how many of us are just like him? How many of us hit a brick wall when it comes to understanding mental illness? Like McMurphy we want to shake it out of them. We like to think there is nothing a good laugh and a good party will not cure. Like McMurphy, we like to think that all nests are basically the same everywhere.
Immediately after watching the film I felt a little disappointment. I thought that too much time was spent showing McMurphy trying to shake everyone out of their madness. I felt that there was basically an introduction, a conclusion, and just one big Act in the middle. I haven't resolved this yet but the more I think about the film the more I realize that more time spent showing this was actually warranted. Perhaps not as much time as was spent, but certainly more than I would have been happy with originally. cuck·ooed, cuck·oo·ing, cuck·oos: To repeat incessantly, as a cuckoo does its call.
Everyone involved in telling this story, the writers, the director, the actors, everyone did a brilliant job. It makes you think that they all knew they were dealing with a gem and each and every one of the cast and crew wanted to treat it delicately, with the tenderness and attention to detail it warranted.
The result is brilliant.