Directed by Milos Forman
Believe it or not, prior to last night I had never seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I have no idea why.
Well, I’ve seen it now and can say few things: it’s a great movie with a timeless quality and, for me, quite puzzling. I don’t quite get the ending – at least part of it. (But that’s by no means a bad thing. Actually, it’s quite good.)
Set in the early sixties, a petty criminal, Randle Patrick McMurphy (play by Jack Nicholson), is sent to a mental asylum.
McMurphy is a kind of trickster character. While he’s been convicted of a number of crimes, his real problem is that he is a non-conforming individual, a disruptive element that society (the justice system) can’t figure out what to do with.
He’s sent to the asylum to be assessed. Are his problems mental? Is he psychologically unstable? For McMurphy, it’s all a big joke and he continues his disruptive ways.
But the asylum is an ordered, sober place and the inmates are largely under the very structured, humourless control of Nurse Mildred Ratched, played by Louise Fletcher. The rule is get in line, and stay in line.
McMurphy soon becomes a threat to Nurse Ratched and the hospital system because his personality and antics are in such opposition to them. His chaotic playfulness also has a kind of helpful, even healing effect on the other inmates.
(He’s appalled when he learns how many of them are willingly in the facility, at how easily and happily they have surrendered themselves to someone else’s dictates.)
Soon, McMurphy focuses on Nurse Ratched. He wants to get under her nerves as he resists the hospital’s routine.
Things eventually come to a head when McMurphy escapes, then hijacks the hospital bus with the other inmates on it. He takes them all on a fishing trip, complete with a prostitute he knows.
The story boils down to a struggle between chaos and order, freedom and restriction, individuality and conformity. The title, for what it’s worth, comes from an old childrens’ rhyme:
One flew east, one flew west;
One flew over the cuckoo’s nest.
Although made in roughly the mid-seventies, the setting is early sixties and this allows the film to emphasize the inhumane and uncaring conditions of the asylum, even it’s barbarity (such as the shock treatment).
The setting also helps the film to remain so compelling today. While almost 30 years old, there is nothing anachronistic about the movie. It remains as fresh and relevant now as then.
It also helps that it has wonderful and varied performances from both the leads, Nicholson and Fletcher, as well as the marvelous supporting cast (like Danny Devito and Christopher Lloyd, to name two).
Warning – spoiler below
And when the film ends, while there is a nice, affirmative feel there is also a sense there may be something more. There is no nice, Hollywood bow on the movie.
For me, the question resides in Nicholson’s character.
What is he thinking near the end? Why, after all that has been done to set up the escape, do he and the others allow themselves to fall asleep and be caught in the morning? Why does McMurphy allow the chance at freedom to slip past?
There are probably many ways to take the ending, and this is one of the reasons One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is such a good movie. It’s a great story that provides an ending but one that in many ways we have to determine for ourselves.
My copy is the two-disc One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest – Special Edition which contains the film in a “digital transfer from restored elements.” I don’t quite know what this means, or what the earlier edition looked like, but the film here is exceptionally good quality though there are some exterior, twilight and/or dawn scenes that are a bit murky largely due, I think, to the original film stock.
The set also includes audio commentary from director Milos Forman and producers Michael Douglas and Saul Zaentz. Additionally, there is a feature length documentary, The Making of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.