One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest ★★★★½

It´s easy to see why “One Flew Over the Cuckoo´s Nest” is one of the most critically acclaimed movies of all time. Not only is it a masterclass in almost every aspect of filmmaking (writing, direction, cinematography, editing, acting), its themes and messages are timelessly resonating.

The film follows one man´s battle against a whole system, a battle between freedom, individuality, understanding, and compassion on one side and society´s constraints, conformity, prejudice, and abuse of power on the other side. This conflict is represented by the movie´s protagonist and antagonist, Randle McMurphy and Nurse Ratched. Their dynamic is the backbone of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo´s Nest”.

Randle McMurphy is the character I associate Jack Nicholson the most with, even more so than Jack Torrance. Nicholson is McMurphy and McMurphy is Nicholson in my mind, I can´t imagine any other actor in this role. His energy, charisma, and screen presence are one of a kind, and both his facial expressions and his line delivery are incredibly enjoyable. This performance definitely needs to be considered, when people talk about the all-time greats.

McMurphy is a fascinating character, free-spirited, reckless, defiant, and full of life. He clearly is no hero (he is imprisoned for several assaults and one case of statutory rape, crimes he neither denies nor shows any remorse for), but you can´t help to be mesmerized by his charisma. He treats the other patients like normal human beings with dignity and compassion and helps them in a way Nurse Ratched never could. Seeing his positive influence on them is simply heartwarming and makes you wonder, if they really are crazy or just misunderstood.

Louise Fletcher´s contribution is equally important, and her screen presence can match Nicholson´s. This is definitely the role of her career. Nurse Ratched´s desire for absolute control and order, total inflexibility when it comes to the daily routine, and unshakeable belief to be right about everything make her both terrifying and hateable. Then add an ice-cold stare and demeanor, passive-aggressiveness, and a sprinkle of sadism and you have one of cinema´s greatest villains. Milos Forman himself sees Ratched as a representation of the Communist Party he suffered under in Czechoslovakia. You could say she is a kind of “Big Sister”. In Forman´s own words: “The Communist Party was my Nurse Ratched, telling me what I could and could not do; what I was or was not allowed to say; where I was and was not allowed to go; even who I was and was not”.

McMurphy and Fletcher might be the standouts, but the film is full of idiosyncratic, fully realized, and memorable characters, and all performances are amazing and full of heart and humanity. The supporting cast includes Christopher Lloyd, Danny DeVito, William Redfield, Sydney Lassick, and my two favorites, Brad Dourif as Billy Bibbit and Will Sampson as Chief.

I have said that the McMurphy/Fletcher dynamic is the backbone of the movie, but the patients and their interactions with McMurphy and each other are heart and soul of the film, especially during the several delightful, funny, and wholesome scenes such as McMurphy´s baseball commentary, the basketball scene, or the fishing trip. Every one of those characters grows close to your heart.

The majority of the film is lighthearted and charming, which makes the finale so shocking, heart-wrenching, and impactful. The final shot is hopeful and emotionally satisfying, though. McMurphy might have lost against the system, but his spirit lives on in the people (like Chief) he inspired.

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo´s Nest” is poetic, poignant, and captivating, and one of the most powerful humanistic tales of movie history. A must-see film for everyone.

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