The world is filled with systems that consist of rigid rules, that don’t allow for individuals to defy them even if they were meritless or even harmful.
One flew over the Cuckoo’s nest discusses this issue through the ward of a psychiatric hospital, where the patients spend their days in a boring and to some extent cruel routine, that is imposed upon them by the hospital’s administration and especially nurse Ratched, however everything changes when R.P. McMurphy joins them, he is a convicted criminal who is trying to escape his last punishment by pretending to be insane, assuming that his stay at the hospital would be an easier punishment to endure.
At first McMurphy defies all the rules that exist without a convincing reason, for he believed that the duration of his stay will be the same anyway, and the hospital’s administration will release him regardless of his behavior, but he later realize that he was mistaken, and they may decide to keep him for indefinite period, despite of this new information he keeps on resisting nurse Ratched and her rules.
The power conflict between McMurphy and Ratched is the axis which the plot revolves around, in the first two thirds of the movie the audience detests Ratched but is unable to condemn her, for she harshly and coldly compels everyone to abide by rules intended to protect all the patients and not just those who we get acquainted with through the narrative, but in the last third of the movie it is revealed to us how little she actually cares for the patients, and that her higher goal is the rules itself, McMurphy on the other hand is not perfect either, for while he cares for the patient as fellow humans he often forgets that his way – entertaining as it may be – is not a cure, he doesn’t consider the consequences of his behavior, from his perspective all the nurses and doctors are adversaries, even though they are not all against him.
Unfortunately the movie disparages the doctors’ role, and represents the hospital as a place to imprison and abuse the patients, it also depicts the stereotypical image of a mental patient as the comical segment of weirdoes who are incurable despite their verbal portrayal in a different light by McMurphy, there is a lot of shots that has been added as funny filling to lighten the stress from the main conflict, however it doesn’t deepen the understanding of the characters, this may have been acceptable in the 70s but – at least in my personal point of view – it is less acceptable now, regarding the feminine characters in the movie, they are almost non-existent, aside from nurse Ratched (the main antagonist) there is an assisting nurse with a minor role, and Candy who – like her name implies – is just the pretty girl whom McMurphy enjoys her company, and can be transferred without trouble to Billy, Candy does not act on her own, she simply does whatever McMurphy tells her to do.
The rebellious McMurphy was played by Jack Nicholson with a convincing performance that reflects the complexity of the stubborn character, that pretends to be submitting to the system while he constantly attempts to break it, even though the character is a manipulative criminal who would do anything to get what he wants, Jack Nicholson makes us not only sympathize with him but also love and support him, Nicholson also adds a comedic factor that is special for this actor unique features.
Nurse Ratched was played by Louise Fletcher who had an even more complex of a role, for she doesn’t show the coldness and evilness of the character in an overt act , it is in the tone of her voice, her glances, and in her sly smile, even her hairstyle makes her look more like a monster with horns, Louise Fletcher managed to smoothly present all those little messages to the audience, thus helping us in understanding why McMurphy hates her and the rest of the patients fear her.
With a lot of characters being in a limiting space, the director Milos Forman and the cinematographer Haskell Wexler shine, for they don’t make us feel that the frame is crowded unless the scene requires it, they create artistic masses with the actors bodies that emphasize or diminish the power from the conflict’s parties, they also create symbolic images, like the squirrel who runs on a barbed wire like McMurphy who is trying to navigate through a system that might kill or cripple him, Ratched’s hat (and her authority) got tarnished by the hands of the patients after they dared to follow McMurphy.
The movie examines whether it is better to abide a heartless system to achieve a common benefit, or support individual’s right to defy the rules and tolerate the consequences, the movie also answers with a passionate style and unexpected content, for all that in my opinion the movie deserves the rating of: 7,5/10