Retro Movie Review: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

You could say I’ve been on a bit of a Jack Nicholson kick lately. I just finished reading Nicholson, a biography about him, and rewatched a few of his incredible films, including The Shining and The Departed. But, although I’d heard the title many times and had caught snippets of it on TV, I’d never sat down and watched the entire two hours and fourteen minutes of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.


Turns out I should have watched it a long time ago.


In fact, everyone needs to see this film. I can understand how it won five Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. Based on the Ken Kesey novel of the same name, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest didn’t win all of those awards because of special effects or an expensive set. It was a brilliant success because it’s one of the most powerful films ever made, appealing to the justice-seeking rebel in all of us.


I’ll give you just a little summary, so as not to spoil the experience for you. Randall Patrick McMurphy, played by Nicholson, is a guy with a criminal record who thinks that pleading insanity to his latest crime will get him out of prison labor and into the comfort of a psychiatric ward. It does not, however, turn out to be the cushy life he’d hoped for. While there, he manages to become a kind of scrappy superhero, giving hope to the other patients by challenging authority (which is his area of expertise), specifically the abusive Nurse Ratched. McMurphy isn’t just a rebel. He’s a rebel with a very good cause. He breaks up the monotony and regulation of a mental institution and replaces it with liveliness, hope, and chaos which, compared to the usual dull routine, gives the patients a sense of hope that there might actually be more to life than medication time and electroshock therapy.


The characters are so unique and interesting that they could each have their own movie. Very early in the film, I started to care about all of them. I was so deeply invested in their well-being that I did not press “pause” once (normally, there are a few snack-grabbing breaks). I began to wonder whether patients in mental hospitals are, in fact, more sane than the folks running those places.


    I was also amazed by how little psychiatric institutions have changed in the past forty years. Unfortunately, I can say that I’ve had the experience, on several occasions, of visiting an elderly relative at a psychiatric ward.


It wasn’t much different from the one depicted in the film.


The patients were overmedicated, Celine Dion songs were being played constantly (it must have been a staff member’s favorite) and there was a giant stack of mind-numbing VHS tapes in the “lounge” area, which included such titles as Beach Blanket Bingo and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. There were also quite a few styrofoam-based craft activities to keep the patients busy. They’ve phased out the electroshock therapy, but all of that monotonous activity and pill pushing seemed to have a similar effect. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, filmed in 1975, reminded me that we haven’t made huge improvements in the way we treat the mentally ill, often forgetting that they are still human beings who need to feel alive and part of the world.

    McMurphy turns a disjointed bunch of oppressed mental patients into a united coalition against Nurse Ratched, giving them a sense of belonging and a sense of purpose. Depending on whose point of view you’re considering, he is either the best or the worst thing that’s ever happened to the ward. I have a feeling you’ll be rooting for McMurphy, as I did. Get your bathroom break in before you press “play.” And even if you’re not the kind that usually gets choked up at movies, I’d suggest keeping a box of tissues nearby. They might come in handy.