One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

Currently rated the 18th top rated film on IMDb, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest tells the story of a criminal, Randle Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), who pleads insanity in the attempt to get a more lenient sentence. Sent to a mental hospital, he livens up the otherwise monotonous lives of the patients, much to the ire of the strict head nurse, Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher).

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest clean swept the Oscars in 1976, taking home the five biggest prizes as only the second film to do so since It Happened One Night.

In reality, it is an extremely frustrating film. Pitched as a "man against the system", McMurphy is clearly written to be chaotic and bring some colour to the otherwise black and white world of the hospital. Meanwhile, Ratched is the oppressive villain sticking regimentally to routine despite the suffering of the patients.

In actuality, the opposite appears true. While McMurphy is disruptive, he often comes across as a bully, coercing the patients against their will. Even as he gains some of their trust, he continues to manipulate until he has a majority behind him. Ratched on the other hand is the voice of reason. While the medical practices are undeniably oppressive by modern standards, she remains cool, calm and collected at all times when dealing with her patients.

That being said, Nicholson does give a career defining performance, fully deserving of his Academy Award. It is often his body language or subtle facial expressions that betray the mischief of McMurphy, and these human qualities cannot be expressed in a script. He switches from the chaos and disorder of a profanity-ridden baseball commentary to the benign friendship of some of his fellow interns with consummate professionalism.

He leads an all-star cast including both Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd, but the other standout is debutant Brad Dourif as the stuttering and immature Billy Bibbit. And, whenever the film veers towards bedlam, it is Louise Fletcher - who reportedly took on the role while other bigger names in Hollywood declined it for fear of being cast as the villain - who brings it back to earth with strong and capable acting.

Overall, a mixed bag. Fortunately, the weak characters are more than carried by the superb story and acting.

4 stars