I had the pleasure of finally watching this classic starring Jack Nicholson, and I can’t believe its taken so long to get around to it. The film has been a staple on the IMDb top 250, lingering near the top (it’s at #12 at the time of this article) for as long as I can remember, so its a wonder why I haven’t set aside time to check it out much sooner. On the other hand, there’s a cool feeling about watching a classic film for the first time. We often watch great films and remember that feeling we had seeing it for the first time, wondering what it would feel like seeing it for the first time again. Watching classics long after their initial release is taking a journey into a different time and place, with often different philosophies on film making which makes it a whole different experience when compared to watching a new film.
The film stars the versatile Jack as McMurphy, a rebellious misfit who gets sent to a mental institution after previously serving at a prison work camp. In no time McMurphy brings his brand of breaking-the-rules fun to the other patients. For most, he does far more than what the medical practitioners can, treating them as regulars and showing them to a good time. Needless to say he gains a quick following with the patients, but is under the close eye of the facilities authorities, mainly the head nurse, Nurse Ratched.
The film focuses on one thing impeccably: characters. The colorful bunch of patients are more than just looneys talking to themselves. They each have their own story and distinct personality. Many scenes involve the characters simply interacting, whether it be during a group therapy session or a game of cards. Their personalities show through every line and every action they’re involved in. This is one thing that is so easy for films to overlook, as surprising as it would seem. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the plot and the action and put aside a character’s past, feelings, and overall place in the big picture. Cuckoo’s Nest places focus on the characters, which gives it an advantage in being a piece of humanity over a piece of entertainment.
Escaping the facility is only a small part of the movie. While that would seem McMurphy’s original agenda, as the film goes on and he becomes closer to the inmates, it becomes much more philosophical. In fact, McMurphy has several chances to escape, which isn’t really a spoiler. The film to me is really about how he changes during his stay at the hospital, and how he changes his new group of friends.
It became clear to me how this film has stood the test of time and is still considered one of the greatest films ever made. You don’t often see a film today that takes place primarily in one location, nor one that places so much emphasis on characters and feelings rather than action-driven plots. It goes without saying that Jack Nicholson is one of the greatest actors of all time (he won an Oscar for his performance), and his moving performance here is only enhanced by the supporting cast. A film like this needs a strong cast to be pulled off, and there don’t seem to be a lot of actors that can demand such attention as they do in this movie. While it certainly is tough to make an enjoyable film, its perhaps more difficult for a film such as this to keep the viewer’s attention without being boring. That to me was the true test that this film passed, and I’d go as far to say it is unrivaled in that regard.
I can’t discuss this film without mentioning the very surprising ending. While I found it to be quite sad, it had very poetic and mystical feeling to it. In the big picture though, it fit the rest of the film and really added an extra level of mental perplexity. The ending is just yet another aspect that sets it apart from other movies. When it could go one way that might please the audience more, it takes a different direction that is more in line with the rest of the film. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a real exemplary piece of film that illustrates that while times have changed, our humanity has not.