One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a moving and also quite unsettling drama. Despite Jack Nicholson’s jovial and happy-go-lucky character, this film is far from cheerful. It poses many questions about the nature of mental institutions, and the comparisons between the other alternative for criminals; prison.
Nicholson’s character McMurphy pleads insanity for his crimes and is admitted to a mental institution, in the hopes that the conditions would be far better than those of a prison. However, he soon learns that that is not the case; highlighted when he jokes to a warden about getting out in a number of days, to which the warden responds “this isn’t prison!”, telling him they will let him go when they are ready to.
The happiness and laughter shared between the patients softens, yet doesn’t undermine, the harsh undertones of the story. We are faced with a grim reality, and a group of people unable to see that they are being treated unfairly. This speaks volumes about the treatment of the mentally ill and highlights it as an issue within society. McMurphy’s story is perhaps the most powerful in doing this, because during his stay his mental health deteriorates due to some of the treatments he undergo’s, particularly the electroshock therapy that he is subjected to against his will. What stands out as perhaps the most shocking is the way the patients are treated by the staff. While one would think that a mentally ill or unstable person should be treated with kindness and patience, we witness them being dragged, kicking and screaming along corridors, and forced to take medication.
The use of just one location (with one small exception in the middle of the film when McMurphy helps the other patients escape so they can go fishing) and the use of white and pale grey tones throughout emphasizes a clinical feeling, thus throwing the audience into this clinical, unappealing atmosphere. The strong theme of friendship is very moving; the patients help each other through situations, and their friendships grow and blossom, enabling them to laugh in the face of what you might call injustice.
The acting is by far the best part of this film. The minimal sets and locations and the small amount of music, be it non diegetic or diegetic, allows the characters to fully develop; and the actors to show their full potential. I felt that every role was incredibly well portrayed; and Jack Nicholson was fantastic as usual. McMurphy’s optimism, and refusal to succumb to the defeatist attitude of his fellow patients, is uplifting, which for me served to make the final scene even more powerful. When he is forced into defeat, and left as just a shell of his former self at the end, the audience really feels for him; aided largely by his infectious optimism.
The ending leaves the viewer with conflicting emotions, because some of the film is completely uplifting, while the bleak setting and human emotions that bleed through make some of it very depressing. The final sequence is perhaps one of the most powerful I’ve ever seen; and completely unexpected.
A touching and at times upsetting story, with top notch acting and a beautifully shot and very bleak setting; I can see why this film is considered one of the classics of the 70’s.