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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

What She said:


Wow, we’ve been burdened with some not-so-great movies lately, which is one of the reasons I pitched this one to The He.  It’s also something a little more “vintage” aka old, and so that also switches things up a little.  Released in 1975 (yes that’s before I was born), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, presents an interesting look into the oppressive world of institutionalized mental health.  It’s marked by exceptional performances—including by Jack Nicholson—and can be taken either at face value or appreciated for some of its deeper themes and messaging.

R.P. McMurphy is one bad dude.  He’s a chronic screw-up who doesn’t give a crap about other people.  In today’s society he’d probably be diagnosed with ADHD because he just cannot seem to stay still.  He’s also a career criminal, whose latest exploits have landed him in hot water once again.  But this time, McMurphy has been remanded to a state mental hospital.  While some think he’s faking mental illness to get out of time in prison, McMurphy, for the record, doesn’t seem to care too much one way or the other.  He’ll make trouble wherever he is.  However, a mental facility gives him the flexibility he needs to do ever more bad stuff. 

As soon as he arrives, McMurphy assesses the hierarchy of the place and is quickly bored.  He realizes that it’s not going to be as easy of a sentence as he had hoped, and this begins to wear on him.  To make matters worse, he forges a very poor relationship with the leader of the ward, Nurse Ratchet.  The two of them absolutely hate each other.  McMurphy makes it his mission to really drive Nurse Ratchet batty, but she is way too sly for him.  He’ll make a move and then her counterattacks, putting McMurphy back in his place.  There’s a clear power struggle here.  The situation is magnified when McMurphy finds out that he’s not in the facility for a set term, as he would have been if he had reported to prison.  Instead, he can be kept for as long as it takes to “rehabilitate” him.

During his time at the ward, McMurphy learns a lot about himself and makes some unlikely friends.  He also takes issue with how the place is run and the leadership structure, which seems to keep the mostly voluntary patients belittled and from making any marked improvement.  In particular, McMurphy forges a bond with Chief Bromden, a man who is said to be deaf and unable to speak.  As McMurphy grows more and more frustrated, the situation in the facility comes to a head and lives are forever changed.

This movie is quite long, but there’s also a lot that happens.  You’ll see plenty of group therapy and sharply worded interactions between patients and Nurse Ratchet.  There are the more joyous moments for the patients, and some serious dark times.  It’s a bit of a journey, for both R.P. McMurphy and you, the viewer.  But it’s also rewarding. 

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Aside from watching the actual story unfold, you also are exposed to the depressing world of the institutionalized mental health system.  Now, who knows if it was really as it was presented in this film (although I suspect it was), and if these types of facilities still bear any resemblance today (maybe, but probably not), but the state hospital where McMurphy was housed was not so much about helping people as it was keeping them quiet and ensuring that they were nobody’s problem.  Even the patients there voluntarily, which were most of them, felt that they were doing everyone good by staying put.  Characters like young Billy have been seeking inpatient help for quite some time but are showing little improvement.  And that’s because they’re shown as being highly medicated and subjected to misguided and non-strategic group therapy sessions. 

As much as it pained me to watch the disharmony between them, I think that the relationship between McMurphy and Nurse Ratchet was the key to making this film so fascinating.  She seems to know that McMurphy shouldn’t be in the facility, but she’s also the one who advocates for him to be there, seemingly because she enjoys torturing him.  But at the same time, she is not outwardly aggressive or evil.  She damages McMurphy in a snide and underhanded way.  Honestly, it’s hard to decide which one of them is the worse person.  Nurse Ratchet craves order while McMurphy presents the opposite.  But at the same time Nurse Ratchet does little to help the people in the facility and McMurphy actually does grow to care for them. 

There are elements of this film that feel dated, but overall you can tell that it was well produced, directed, and written.  For that reason, it stand holds true as a decent movie.  I also commend all the actors involved for putting on such convincing performances.  While this film is categorized as a drama, there are also moments of comedy that help to lighten the emotional load on the viewer.  I think that, overall, the construction and pacing of this movie are well done, and this allows the viewer to become engrossed in the film.

Watching the character relationships unfold and develop on screen is what makes One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest worth the rental.  For a longer film, I found it surprisingly easy to watch, and, so long as you’re in the mood for this type of movie, it definitely has a positive payoff.

Thumbs up.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest


What He said:


R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) has a long rap sheet. His latest crime is statutory rape of a 15-year old girl, for which he has been sentenced to hard labor. McMurphy has one of those personalities that just leads to trouble. Wherever he goes, something tends to happen. As a result, McMurphy is sent to a psychiatric hospital for a mental evaluation. Some believe it is a plot to get out  of doing the work from his sentence, but others think that given his history, a mental evaluation is in order.

McMurphy is assigned to a ward that is run by Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). She likes routine, order, and is unshakable when challenged by McMurphy. McMurphy is a natural born rule-breaker and Nurse Ratched is the authority figure in the hospital. This makes them natural enemies.

McMurphy thinks that Nurse Ratched isn’t helping the patients, but rather scaring them into not misbehaving. When the other start to notice he’s challenging her authority, some of them rally behind him.

After a while, McMurphy takes a liking to a deaf and mute patient who he has nicknamed Chief (Will Samson). The Chief is a giant of a man and generally stays out of trouble, but also notices that McMurphy – for whatever reason – seems to have warmed up to him.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

McMurphy and Ratched continue to butt heads the more he challenges her techniques. She never cracks, which gets to McMurphy. Being in the facility in general is  starting to get to McMurphy and he starts lashing out more and more, which only strengthens Racthed’s resolve.

Speaking of Ratched’s techniques, I found it interesting McMurphy was so upset by them. She wasn’t the warmest person in the world, but all she did was give them their meds, play calming music for them, and encourage them to express their feelings in group therapy. She is very rigid about sticking to that schedule, but none of these things are actually harmful to the patients.

Regardless, most of the patients really seem to enjoy the fact that that McMurphy is giving Ratched a hard time. Some of them – Christopher Lloyd’s character in particular – are almost like a rabid animal who sense blood when around McMurphy. He sees McMurpy’s complete disregard for authority – and Nurse Ratched in particular – and really feeds of it. It’s like watching a violent mob when somebody not involved in the initial conflict simply begins to pile on after a while, because they’re getting a high off of the violence around them.

Another thing I found interesting about the movie is the portrayal of McMurphy as something of a hero and the reputation the Nurse Ratched character has built up in pop culture. Even as someone who has never seen the movie, I know what it means when you jokingly call someone Nurse Ratched. It’s not a compliment. I wouldn’t call her a pleasant person, but I don’t think she did a whole lot where she was outright unkind to the patients. There’s one instance in the movie where I can see that she reacted in a cold and possibly even cruel way, but aside from that one instance, I feel the “Nurse Rathced” stereotype is a little overstated. She was rigid, strict, and not especially nice, but some portray her as sadistic, and I just wasn’t seeing that.

As far as McMurphy as a hero, I just didn’t get that. The movie shows the patients feeding off of his confidence and lack of respect for authority. It even hints that he has helped some of them a lot more than Nurse Ratched’s has. I’m not sure I really bought that. Just because they have a good time with him doesn’t mean he’s healthy for them. He breaks out of the facility in once instance and takes them on a field trip. He sneaks booze in at another, which is needless to say against policy, in another. While they had a blast in both situations, he’s not really doing anything to cure them of their various illnesses. He’s just making them forget about them. It’s not a very big picture or long term approach. It’s like holding a big shiny toy in front of a bratty kid and thinking you have fixed the problem because they are currently occupied. It’s a band aid.

The exception seems to be the Chief though. The Chief seems to draw some kind of confidence from being around McMurphy. I find that strange, because all McMurphy did was break a bunch of rules and create a lot of problems in the facility. The Chief seems to respect McMurphy’s self-confidence though. McMurphy thinks he’s the man and the Chief likes that kind of swagger; which is something he never had. I really liked the Chief – he seems like a kind a decent man – but was conflicted about his attraction to McMurphy; who I really didn’t care for outside the fact he was pretty damn funny at times.

That’s part of what I really liked about the movie though. It might make you feel conflicted, but it makes you think.

It’s also really well-acted too. Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher are absolutely fantastic. They really play off of one another. There might be nothing more interesting than watching two conflicting personalities…well conflict with one another. It’s interesting on several different levels. They both won an Academy Award for their roles in this movie and I can see why. Danny DeVito is almost unrecognizable in this role. For starters, I don’t remember him ever being that young, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen him play someone so far removed from reality. His character was very child-like and I actually thought I was watching a mentally handicapped man, not Danny DeVito portraying one. Christopher Lloyd, Will Sampson, Sydney Lassick, and Brad Dourif (best known for lending his voice to the Chucky movies) were all excellent too. Dourif really surprised me. I guess I just got used to seeing him in bad horror movies.  I didn’t know he had that kind of talent.

Good movie. It’s funny at times, really depressing at others, and just an all-around interesting story. It’s a very engaging movie and kept me interested the entire time. It makes you think long after it's over.

Rating: Thumbs up.

This movie review was written for your reading pleasure on January 11, 2013.