#15: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)

When and how did I watch this?

May 22nd, 2017, on flash drive.

Had I seen this film already?

Yes.  My wife and I were curious about it one evening a few years ago and took a shot at it.  It’s part of the reason I started going at the IMDb 250 altogether.

What did I know about the movie before watching it?

Jack Nicholson plays a criminal who finds himself in a mental institution, pleading insanity in his recent trial to get into the ward. He meets all sorts of colorful characters and soon afterward encounters head nurse Ratched.  Endless shenanigans ensue, mostly involving Nicholson’s character riling up the rest of the patients to the chagrin of the nurse and other staff in house. There are escape attempts involved among the protagonist and a Native American affectionately dubbed “Chief”, but some of the details were a little foggy to me before the second viewing.

What do I know about it now?

The greatness of this film was never in question, but upon revisiting it and examining the style, I found it peculiar that the wide shots, pans, and angles characteristics of Kubrick films are largely absent.  I did notice the use of red and the hard sanitary white of the halls being used; there are also sustained shots of the characters’ faces as someone else spoke, primarily during the “counseling” sessions with Ratched (Fletcher), in order for the viewer to witness the gradual agitation or discomfort in their demeanor. In fact, a lot of what is “said” is unspoken, as one might expect from the mentally handicapped, but it is employed with great effect. As far as the screenplay, there are few movies that are both as inspiring and depressing as this one. Several of McMurphy’s (Nicholson) antics generate belly laughs, and we’re enamored with Chief’s big reveal, but the fate of Billy (Dourif) draws out some deep emotions. It’s a rough film to watch, but cathartic in the end. Ratched is a monster, and her passive aggressive demeanor provides some complexity to her character and simultaneously makes her one of the nastiest villains in film.

What are some themes in the film?

Sanity, determination, friendship/brotherhood, depression, mental health care, justice

Did this affect me personally?

Despite McMurphy’s lackadaisical approach to society and the institution system, he provides some profound insight on the definition of sanity, the rights of an individual, and free thought. Billy pulls at your heart strings. Several big laughs are present throughout the film, including a couple of delightful basketball games.

Why is this ranked #15?

Nicholson and Fletcher play entertaining characters, but also project sentiments about who we are and how we should be treated (Ratched inversely, of course). This is a meaningful and likable movie.

Did my wife watch/like it?

It’s a tear-jerker for her.

Would I watch it again?

Yes, but in moderation.  Some of the vulgarity is uncomfortable for me.

Would I recommend it to a friend?

Absolutely.  If you love cinema and have a heart, you’ll see this film and it will become a personal favorite.

Does it deserve to be on this list as one of the greatest films of all time?

At the risk of appearing redundant, the film works as sort of a backwards Forrest Gump, largely taking place inside one facility instead of having breadth of setting, dealing with mental health as a hindrance rather than producing mere naivety, but still addressing the potential of man raging against an inherent set of rules. Gump and McMurphy turn out to be opposites, but they both explore the limits of what we can and should do, not making excuses for ourselves and working with what we have. Unfortunately in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the patients are not seen as humans and are suppressed intensely. Once again, what is unsaid is often the loudest in this film, and this subtlety is hopefully not lost on the viewer, because its meaning is what makes this one truly great.

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