Thomas Hwang’s review published on Letterboxd:
What happened to Jack Nicholson? He seems to have disappeared for the last few years except for Lakers games and awards shows. I love him in The Departed and The Shining but this may be his best performance. I really wish he would give us another great film but if he’s tired of acting that’s fine he’s given us enough. In this film he plays Randle McMurphy, a man put into a mental institution to experience special treatment but grows attached to the inmates there. Where some people would be scared, Randle happily goes to work changing the institution, he doesn’t see it as a prison, but a place full of people who need to reach their full potential. He’s a sane man in an insane place trying to put some fun into the lives of the beaten down prisoners that inhabit it.
The inmates are played by well-known actors in some of their early performances: Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd and some unknowns that round out the cast well. Murphy holds genuine affection for his inmates which makes us root for the trouble he creates there. We have an interesting conflict between him and the nurses at war for the interests of the people at the institution. The cruel Nurse Ratched and the other wards trying to whip them into conformity and strip away the communal aspect of the institution that makes it special, using cruel methods to get this across and McMurphy wanting them to be the best versions of themselves they can be and showing what life can offer outside of their prison home.
Are the villains the caretakers or the condemned cellmates? Are the people in the institution insane or more rational than we are? These are some interesting questions the movie raises. Despite their shortcomings, each patient is a fully developed human. Murphy breaking them out from the confines of the asylum, teaching them to live and be real people, not a part of the prison system is inspiring. I’ll never forget the catharsis I got at the end and I have so much more respect for Nicholson after this. What an actor. I felt everything without being told what to feel. It’s both heartwarming and heartbreaking, intelligent but insane, it hits every chord perfectly without skipping a beat. This film is essential.