Saturday, November 6, 2021

(20) One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest - 1975

First of all, as I would suggest with all these movies, before reading this review, see the movie if you haven't. I can't talk about this one without spoilers, particularly the ending. Part of the fun of these reviews is possibly introducing the movie to new people, so I don't want to ruin it for you.

Now, assuming you've all seen it, I'm free to proceed. I've seen One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest maybe five times now. On the list of  the Top 100, it's one of the last I have seen for the first time lately or revisited. That was on purpose because it haunts me a little.

Jack Nicholson stars as Randle "R.P." McMurphy. He has been in jail for crimes including rape, and a major juxtaposition is that he is very likable despite that. Unless you can get past this disturbing part of his character, I'm not sure you can enjoy the movie, because for all the good he does while in the mental hospital, you'd have to hate him for being a sicko who raped a young girl. So, let's acknowledge and park that for now.

There is a question at first about whether or not McMurphy is "crazy" (this is set in 1963, so we have to account for very dated language, treatment, and behaviors) at first. He is to be evaluated for a while, to see if he is mentally ill or not. Though high-strung and very exorbitant, he does seem much better adjusted than the others in the ward he is put into.

This movie has an excellent and well-known cast, even to people 45 years later. There is Christopher Lloyd of "Back To The Future" fame, Danny DeVito, and even Vincent Schiavelli, who if you don't know the name certainly know the face. The main antagonist is Nurse Ratched, played by Louise Fletcher. Will Sampson is quietly brilliant as "Chief", especially in the basketball scenes and at the very end of the movie. 

In a nutshell (pardon the TERRIBLE pun), McMurphy dances to his own beat and is all about rocking the boat in the ward. And Nurse Ratched is all about keeping things her way. Most of the patients are there voluntarily, but McMurphy is not, as he discovers. Once the guards let him in on this fact, he then works hard to try to escape.

They do escape once, as McMurphy steals a bus with the rest of the ward's patients on it, and they go around town and then for a bit of freedom on a fishing boat before being returned to the hospital. It's at this point where the staff start to think of McMurphy as, if not "crazy", at least dangerous. But for all that, he also plays a role in several patients starting to emerge from their trauma, at least a little bit, for at least a little while.

It's that good guy/bad guy personality that makes McMurphy compelling. He provides contrast to the others while highlighting their collective plight. When meek and mild Charlie Cheswick (Sydney Lassick) starts to stand up to Nurse Ratched, he winds up with shock therapy as a result when the protest turns into a larger ruckus involving McMurphy and the Chief. McMurphy gets it too but seemingly comes away unscathed.

The climax of the movie is really when McMurphy is to escape with the Chief, concocting a plan to escape by first getting the night guard out of the way by smuggling in some booze and girls, and getting the patients all drunk. But, as booze and fate would have it, no one escapes and McMurphy gets outed as the instigator the next morning, leading to the anti-climax.

To give away the end, because it's so barbaric, is necessary here. Thank goodness we seem to have gotten beyond some of these practices as a half-century ago still used. McMurphy is lobotomized and basically turned into a vegetable, and returned to his bed in the middle of the night. The Chief, realizing his friend is pretty much gone, smothers him to put him out of his misery. It is very hard to see such a vibrant life snuffed out, and Chief can't bear it. The only semblance of a "happy ending" is that the Chief finally grows back mentally into his very large body, and uses his incredible strength to escape alone.

It makes me wonder about how many thousands (millions?) of people have had such fates in the past, and still today in some places. Lobotomies were (are?) a real thing, and just about the saddest, most terrifying thing I can think of. I'm sure there are occasions where it helped a person (if done right), but for a misfit like McMurphy, who is representative of colorful people with such personality that certainly do exist in real life, just seems wrong. Unless you jump back to the fact he raped someone, and this could be seen (not by me) as a fitting end and more than he deserved.

Nicholson is at his best here. His portrayal of McMurphy is very entertaining to watch as he leads the ragtag band of misfits in an uprising of sorts against the system. When he first shows up in the hospital and is unshackled, he acts in a way that is very much a foreshadowing of his turn as the Joker in 1989's Batman. And it just goes on from there until he meets his ultimate fate.

Here's a contemporary review of the movie by someone much more talented than me, in Variety magazine. And here's another from The New York Times.

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