Top 100 Movie Review: No. 009 – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

Ranked 009 on the IMDb Top 100 Movie List (as at May 2017).
Watched movie during the month of July 2020.

Cast: Jack Nicholson (R.P. McMurphy), Louise Fletcher (Nurse Ratched), Will Sampson (Chief Bromden), Brad Dourif (Billy Bibbit), Michael Berryman (Ellis), Christopher Lloyd (Max Taber), Alonzo Brown (Miller), William Redfield (Dale Harding), Peter Brocco (Col. Matterson), Sydney Lassick (Charlie Cheswick), Scatman Crothers (Turkle), Dean R. Brooks (Dr. Spivey), Mwako Cumbuka (Warren), Danny DeVito (Martini)
Directors: Milos Forman
My rating: 9.0 / 10

In 1963 Oregon Randle Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is moved to a mental institution after serving a short sentence on a prison farm for several charges of assault, and statutory rape of a 15-year-old (which McMurphy called consensual). Though not actually mentally ill, McMurphy hopes to avoid hard labour and serve the rest of his sentence in a relaxed environment. Upon arriving at the hospital, he finds the ward run by nurse Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher), a cold, passive-aggressive tyrant who uses her rules and authority to intimidate her charges into a restrictive, joyless existence.

The other patients include anxious, stuttering Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif); Charlie Cheswick (Sydney Lassick), who is prone to childish tantrums; delusional and innocent Martini (Danny DeVito); the well-educated, paranoid Dale Harding (William Redfield); belligerent and profane Max Taber (Christopher Lloyd); epileptics Jim Sefelt and Bruce Fredrickson, the former of whom gives his medicine to the latter; quiet but violent-minded Scanlon, “Chief” Bromden (Will Sampson), a very tall Native American who apparently is a deaf-mute, and several others with more chronic conditions.

Ratched soon sees McMurphy’s lively, rebellious presence as a threat to her authority, and she confiscates the patients’ cigarettes and rations them, and suspends their card-playing privileges. During his time in the ward, McMurphy gets into a battle of wills with Ratched. 

McMurphy steals a bus, escaping with several patients to go on a fishing trip, encouraging his friends to discover their own abilities and find self-confidence while he catches up with his girlfriend Rose.

After learning that the judge’s time sentence doesn’t apply to the hospital, and he could remain there indefinitely, McMurphy makes plans to escape, encouraging Chief to throw a hydrotherapy console through a window. It is also revealed that McMurphy, Chief, and Taber are the only non-chronic patients sentenced to staying at the institution, as the rest are self-committed and could voluntarily check-out at any time, but are too afraid to do so.

McMurphy, Chief, and Cheswick get into a fight with the orderlies after the latter becomes agitated over his confiscated cigarettes. Ratched sends them to the “shock shop”, where McMurphy discovers Chief can actually speak and hear, having feigned his deaf-muteness to avoid engaging with anyone. After being subjected to electroconvulsive therapy, McMurphy returns to the ward pretending to have brain damage, although he reveals the treatment has made him even more determined. McMurphy and Chief make plans to escape, but decide to throw a secret Christmas party for their friends after Ratched leaves for the night.

McMurphy sneaks two women, Candy and Rose, into the ward, bringing bottles of alcohol, and bribes the night guard. After a night of partying, McMurphy and Chief prepare to escape, inviting Billy to come with them. Not ready to leave the hospital, he refuses. Billy asks for a “date” with Candy and McMurphy arranges for him to have sex with her.

Ratched arrives in the morning to find the ward in disarray and most of the patients passed out drunk. She discovers Billy and Candy together, and aims to embarrass Billy in front of everyone. Billy manages to overcome his stutter and stands up to Ratched. When she threatens to tell his mother, Billy cracks under the pressure and is relegated to his stuttering self.

Ratched has him placed in the doctor’s office to wait for the doctor to arrive. Moments later when McMurphy is trying to escape, Billy commits suicide by slitting his throat with broken glass. McMurphy flies into a rage and pins Ratched to the floor, choking her with both hands until Washington knocks him out.

Sometime later, Ratched comes back with a neck brace and a weak voice, and Harding now leads the now-unsuspended card-playing. Rumors spread that McMurphy has escaped in order to avoid being taken “upstairs”. Later that night, Chief sees McMurphy being returned to his bed. When McMurphy is utterly unresponsive and physically limp, Chief discovers lobotomy scars on his forehead. In an act of mercy, Chief smothers McMurphy to death with a pillow. He then finally is able to lift the hydrotherapy foundation out of the floor, throws it through the window, and escapes into the night, cheered on by Taber.

What’s to Like
The acting, the examination of mental illness and power imbalances in mental institutions.

What’s not to Like

Considered one of the great films of American cinema One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has an exceptionally talented cast including many small parts for individuals who would later lead their own films.  The power struggle between McMurphy who effectively faked his way into the institution and the on the source nice but in reality cold Nurse Ratched keeps you engaged.  Nurse Ratched could have easily let McMurphy be sent back to prison but couldn’t let him go until he submitted. Her powerplays however are best seen by how she destroys Billy after Billy had sex and had some of his confidence returned.

The electric stock therapy and eventual lobotomy of McMurphy highlights just how much power officials in mental institutions have over people with no power and in most cases without mental capacity to speak up (not in McMurphy’s case however).  Unfortunately mistreatment has been too common an actual in some of these institutions when there is limited supervision. 

An excellent movie.

Academy Awards

  • Best Picture – Winner
  • Best Actor in a Leading Role (Jack Nicholson) – Winner
  • Best Actress in a Leading Role (Louise Fletcher) – Winner
  • Best Director (Milos Forman) – Winner
  • Best Writing, Screenplay Adapted From Other Material – Winner
  • Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Brad Dourif) – nominee
  • Best Cinematography – nominee
  • Best Film Editing – nominee
  • Best Music, Original Dramatic Score – nominee

About Nathan

A World traveller who has so far experienced 71 countries (76 by June 2023) in this amazing world.
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