Thursday 11 April 2013

Movie Review: One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

A classic story of institutional madness, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is a rapturous celebration of anti-authoritarianism. The harrowing exploration of life in a mental hospital condemns the system and its guardians, and cheers on individual quirkiness.

Convicted of the statutory rape of a 15 year old and serving time in a penitentiary, Randle McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) has been behaving erratically. With no one quite sure if he is actually mentally sick or just acting mad, McMurphy is admitted to a mental institution to undergo an assessment. As he settles into the ward run with stern authoritarianism by Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), McMurphy meets some of the other mental patients, including the tentative and stuttering Billy (Brad Dourif), the extremely insecure Martini (Danny DeVito), the gigantic but silent Chief (Will Sampson), the intensely hysterical Taber (Christopher Lloyd) and the highly-strung and self-obsessed Harding (William Redfield).

Whether he intends to make a good impression or not, McMurphy can't seem to help himself. He immediately sets about to challenge all of Nurse Ratched's rules. He insists that the inmates should be able to watch the World Series on television, before organizing a chaotic and unsanctioned fishing excursion for all the patients. He also makes friends with Chief, gradually cajoling him out of his shell. But McMurphy's misbehaviour progresses from irritating to dangerous, pushing Nurse Ratched to the limit. A dispute over cigarettes escalates to bedlam, and McMurphy is subjected to medieval treatment. But the worst is still to come, as McMurphy's plan to escape from the institution by taking advantage of the night watchman (Scatman Crothers) takes a dark turn.

Based on Ken Kesey's book from the early 1960s, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest challenges the definition of madness. The cold and constrained environment of the hospital, and the seemingly heartless Nurse Ratched, are presented as more maddening than helpful. The sanity of a system operating on the basis of dehumanization is questioned, while the personal, fun-loving approach of McMurphy towards the patients is celebrated.

But deeper down, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest also ponders the risks and rewards of short term benefits and long term impacts. The staid, uneventful and generally soulless approach personified by Ratched works to keep the patients calm and safe. They may not be having much fun, but neither are they harming themselves or each other. McMurphy seeks opportunities to introduce excitement and animation to people who may or may not be able to handle it. Sure, there is short-term enjoyment and relief, but the longer-term consequences are much more questionable and potentially hazardous.

The battle between McMurphy and Ratched follows the time-honoured pattern of a clash between an independent spirit and the established rule of authority. Only able to mount an asymmetrical campaign, McMurphy looks for Ratched's weak points and incessantly hammers away at them with a variety of tactics. He just does not let go on his overt attempt to have the television tuned to the World Series, and then deploys stealth to sneak the inmates to the fishing trip. McMurphy continues to alternate between noisy confrontations and secretive plots, driving Ratched to increasingly harsh retaliations. Finally McMurphy creates a mess that even he cannot control, and Ratched resorts to extreme countermeasures, with casualties everywhere.

Both Nicholson and Fletcher deservedly received Academy Awards for their roles. Nicholson's performance astutely introduces self-doubt about his own sanity. He initially seems to be healthy compared to the other patients, but his behaviour pattern appears to be uncontrollably self-defeating. And even once he is aware of the damage he is causing, he cannot change his attitude. He may ultimately be the most sick of the patients, but Nicholson ensures that he is also the least visibly sick.

Fletcher portrays an entrenched command and control ruling authority with chilling efficiency. Her fixed plastic smile does nothing to soften ice cold eyes, while her perfect hairdo and humourless demeanour scream of brutal rationality. Fletcher would never get a better role in her career, but here she matched wits and held her own in a ferocious engagement with Nicholson.

The colourful supporting cast featured stars-to-be DeVito, Lloyd and particularly Brad Dourif, the latter successfully creating in Billy the most vulnerable of patients. Will Sampson does not have much acting to do, but his massive presence as Chief leaves a lasting impression.

Director Milos Forman keeps the focus tight and close on the actors, emphasizing the internal confinement inherent in mental illness. Forman often fills the screen with the actors contorting themselves in agony as the mental patients try to deal with a seemingly mundane situation. One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest is bathed in institutional whites and sickly yellows, nature's greens and blues mostly absent from an environment filled with artificial docility waiting to be agitated by McMurphy. He will disturb the nest, causing eggs to crack, some cuckoos to flap, and others to just treasure memories of unexpected turmoil.

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