One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest opens and closes with a tranquil setting, open land at near-dark, mountains, that stirring Jack Nitzsche score – emotively both experiences are very different. The brave, sensitive subject matter on show here is still tricky to handle, even today (over forty years on), but the director Milos Forman just gets on with it.
The setting a mental institute, we meet our friends, Billy (stutters), Harding (proper, but temperamental), Cheswick (prone to tantrums), Martini (self-concealed), Taber (overly out-spoken) – that big guy is “Chief”, described by Billy as a deaf and dumb (Native American) Indian. And here is Randle P. McMurphy, a reckless, mischievous man – played by Jack Nicholson in astonishing, unparalleled form.
McMurphy behaves like a hysterically happy monkey on his arrival to a top class zoo. Released from his shackles – only an actor like Nicholson can behave in such manic, yet liberated, way so brilliantly. McMurphy is already a wild egg in a rather sedate basket. His reason for being sent to such an institute confuses him, likely because he does not care to give this kind of status questioning the time of day. “Too much fighting and fucking” appeared to be his agenda. Not because he is crazy, right?
So how dare I be compelled to laugh at these people? It is not because of their ailments or unique differences, it is their reactions to the behavior. Milos Forman is a genius at making these people just like us, and he brings us in actual close proximity of theses characters. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is not ten minutes old, and is already a masterpiece. The movie is not built or delivered in the opening few minutes though, it endures the running time, cramming it with social humor as well as some heavy drama. Not many filmmakers can blend these together seamlessly like Forman. The Czech director did it with his early work outside of the United States, and he did it following this gem with Amadeus and Man on the Moon, for example.
The sit-down group sessions in the movie, with Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher acting with every inch of her face), are breathtaking, again in observational humor and drama. McMurphy’s eyes go left and right, wondering how he landed here, and what is happening – or not happening as the silences speak just as loud at times. We’re there with these men, all somehow different in mental state and personality. Characteristics and ways of speaking create heated discussions and vocal conflict. McMurphy’s laughter, his bewildered reactions as he sits back and absorbs the banter – it seems someone as worldly as he thinks he might be is now seeing things for the first time.
McMurphy’s frustration start to appear through the cracks during cards games, largely due to it being for him like looking after children if you are someone who has no desire to be a teacher. This is no picnic after all. His relationship with Ratched starts in similar vain, were he soon discovers challenging her and the system is not going to be a holiday either. Far from it. Like trying to accommodate something as simple as finding time in the schedule to watch the World Series. The ensuing vote, by raised hands, is a flat out failure.
There is a second vote (Cheswick would like to see a baseball game), and Nurse Ratched’s calm, smug, following of the exact procedures is a real kick in the teeth for McMurphy. Eventually this will shine through to show the patients they have a longing and passion to be rid of these restrictions somewhere not so deep down – whether good for them or not. When Chief raises his hand for the deciding vote, it is a truly euphoric moment, even though we know Ratched has closed the vote and will not be budge. Defeated again, McMurphy sits and pretends to watch the game, providing exciting commentary, others flock and become spectators of the imaginary game. Ratched does not, of course, like this. Later, foiled again, McMuprhy bets he can lift the hydrotherapy console (huge marble water unit) and break out. Chief watches on from afar, we know now he was paying attention.
McMurphy seldom gets joy, in one uplifting sequence he manages to take the gang on a fishing boat, he introduces them to pretty young Candy, and educates them with fish and hooks. It ends in comic bedlam, of course, though they do return safely to shore with large fish in their grasps and smiles on their faces. He is enlightening them bit by bit. When he proclaims to them “You should be bird-dogging chicks and banging beaver. Do you think you’re crazy or something? No crazier than the average asshole out walking the street.”, a penny drops. Ratched must regret her decision to keep McMurphy on the ward.
Milos Forman is a master of the genre sea-saw, executed through the characters and the stories of his films, but also through our reactions as his audience. When McMurphy is given electrotherapy it is a hard-to-watch sequence, painful almost, but your relief to laugh with him when he pretends he has lost brain function and fools everyone. It also hints at the film’s mesmerizing climax. In another scene, Chief speaks the words “Thank you” to McMurphy when he offers him some gum. A satisfying revelation given they all think he is deaf and mute. “You sure fooled them!”.
In one last stand, a night-time escapade, McMurphy is on the brink of leaving for good – a shot lingers on Nicholson for longer than expected, he laughs, smiles, ponders, thinking about who know what. It is almost like the film narrative has stopped. Is that Nicholson or McMurphy? When Nurse Ratched sees the mess and chaos from the night before, she is practically a monster, snarling at the disorder, distraught and angry about the wreckage of her rules. Even the refined, determined nurse has to face the consequences of the choices she makes. As she keeps her foot firmly down, she threatens the temporarily stutterless Billy, with tragic results. McMurphy finally snaps, and tries to strangle the nurse to death. We spur him on. It’s a climax were the fun well and truly has stopped.
Forman allows the residents to bicker about if McMurphy got out or not, but the reality is for the Chief to discovery, hugging his friend, before following through with the journey to freedom. Poignantly aided by the music of Jack Nitzsche, Chief breaks the huge marble water unit from the ground, lifts it with all his might, and hurls it through the window. The others wake and their faces show all the glory of victory. Chief runs off into the night and away. It is one of the greatest closing moments of simultaneous triumph and tragedy in cinema’s illustrious history. My goosebumps and tears reflect those contrasting emotions every single time I watch it. Certainly more poignant now.