This is a powerful film from the 70s that has such an intriguing conflict between Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher. There have been many chilling villains in the annals of cinema, but Nurse Ratched was arguably the coldest and yet understated of them all. She makes this a true battle for supremacy. Nicholson is supported very nicely by the rest of the cast who he helps to rile up.
*May Contain Spoilers
Originally adapted from the novel by Ken Kesey, the film tells the story of a criminal interned in a mental hospital, because he thinks it will be “life on easy street” with a bunch of crazies. Jack Nicholson plays this Randle McMurphy, who goes in ready to live easy and challenge authority whenever he can.
Meanwhile, the doctors observe him seeing if Randle really belongs. As he grows accustomed to the institution, he becomes the instigator of the other patients. Whether they are playing cards, talking with the group, taking medication, getting their exercise, or taking a fishing trip, he always looks to get his way and have the other patients rally around him. However, he must deal with Nurse Ratched, a cold and iron-fisted woman, who keeps everyone at bay believing it is for their own personal well-being.
In fact, she chooses not to send McMurphy away because he is their problem and Ratched is ready to deal with him in the way she sees fit. Not even McMurphy seems able to prevail over Ratched and her tactics in the end. He starts a riot in the ward after they are not allowed to watch the World Series, and as the final straw, he holds a wild Christmas party with girls and alcohol. He plans to get away in the aftermath with his new-found friend “Chief,” only to wake up in the morning to a very displeased Ratched. Her pressure causes one unstable young man to commit suicide, and with the opportunity to escape right in front of him, an enraged McMurphy strangles the nurse, only to be subdued. Things quiet down and the patients revert back to their old ways with “Mac” nowhere to be seen.
One night he is returned and in a Deja Vu moment, the Chief goes to talk to Randle, only to see a blank look on his face. Ratched’s methods have seemingly won. However, Chief is able to use Randle’s plan to escape and keep the hope alive. Nicholson was backed by a stellar cast including Louise Fletcher, Danny Devito, Christopher Lloyd, Brad Dourif, Will Sampson, Sydney Lassick, and William Redfield.
Although this film is rougher around the edges, it reminds me of the earlier dramatic classic 12 Angry Men, because both films have wonderful casts that are able to create such tension through their collaborative performances. Much like Henry Fonda, Nicholson is the undisputed star, but all the other players make this movie truly extraordinary. Early on there are some definite comedic moments, but the film begins to get darker as the story progresses, and Ratched gets more and more strict.
Furthermore, this film is shot in a realistic almost bleak documentary-like style that really adds to the film. It is almost difficult to watch the scene where Randle chokes Ratched because it is up-in-your-face and graphic. Despite, the fact that the ending is depressing, there is still a hint of hope. It is one of the things that makes One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest so riveting. Much like many of the patients that inhabit the facility, the mood constantly swings like a pendulum from humorous, to calm, to bleakness, and finally hopefulness.