Jack Nicholson stars as R.P. McMurphy, a thick-headed criminal who feigns insanity to avoid going to jail. He arrives at a mental institution and he soon bonds with the inmates. Some are chronics who just lay there like vegetables, but there are men who are actually not that crazy. Maybe they just have trouble living in society, maybe they just can’t put up with all the truly insane crap you have to accept and live by to be considered normal. Or maybe they’re really wacked and can’t control their emotions and thoughts, who knows. McMurphy’s an upfront, extroverted guy, and if he’s annoyed by the evasive minds of his compares, he still likes these goofy bastards. They’re good-spirited, and if he gives them a hand, they can loosen up and have a good time. McMurphy might have done some bad things in his life, but you realize that he’s not that bad a guy. He just thinks that you don’t always have to follow the rules, that the best therapy might be having fun. Yet the heads of the hospital don’t see things the same way, and he courts a dangerous confrontation with the authoritarian head nurse of the ward.
The film is based on Ken Kesey’s novel of the same name, and it’s magnificently brought up to the screen by director Milos Forman. His film is not really about insanity as much as it is about the triumph of the human spirit. The film gets quite intense and disturbing by moments, but it’s still an uplifting, riveting picture. There’s a lot of good humor in the midst of the various dramas. This is also a character study, of the rebellious McMurphy but also of the other inmates and employees. Practically the entire movie takes place in and around the mental hospital, and it revolves around a dozen or so people. Given their condition, they’re not very eloquent and clear, but you still get the feel that they’re real, complete people, not one-dimensional dummies. The cast does a great job, and even the littlest parts are memorable. Nicholson of course is amazing as the new guy, the outsider who comes in this closed little world and stir up things. He’s truly a gifted actor, and you can see how thought-up and precise his performance is. I’m less sure about Louise Fletcher’s; she is incredibly convincing as the bitch nurse, it’s just that it’s a bit of a one note performance.
The supporting players are very interesting. The inmates include Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd and even Dana Carvey (but it’s for less than a minute) as well as some lesser known faces. Brad Dourif is unforgettable as the nervous, stuttering Billy, as is William Redfield in the role of Chief, a huge and stoic Indian who might not be all that dumb. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is really a great film about fighting the system, about how a man’s strong will and love for life can (or can’t?) prevail in a very difficult environment where everyone has just given up.