It’s been many years since I first saw this movie and over time I’d remembered Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) as a histrionically evil character. Turns out her style is much more menacing; keeping a calm tone and cool demeanor that belies the powerful grip she has over her charges in the mental ward. R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson, in a seminal career performance) attempts to rock Nurse Ratched’s well-ordered boat time and again.
McMurphy, a minor criminal with a history of violent behavior, thinks he’s punched a ticket to Easy Street in getting himself transferred to a mental hospital. The first half of the film involves McMurphy discovering just what he’s up against in a ward populated by terrific character actors: Christopher Lloyd, Vincent Schiavelli, Brad Dourif, and a young Danny DeVito. McMurphy acts as the Pied Piper, rousing his fellow inmates to join in various acts of rebellion and adventure, at one point hijacking their hospital bus to the harbor where they charter a fishing boat. But in the 1960s (when this story is set), lobotomies served as a sanctioned form of personality readjustment and the penalty for misbehaving could be severe.
Everything comes together in Cuckoo’s Nest—direction, acting, camera work and set design—to deliver a spirited black comedy that packs a punch with its powerful ending. At turns uplifting and incredibly downbeat, this film stands the test of time, a testament to a great ensemble effort and Nicholson’s embodiment of a charismatic rebel’s spirit. [***** out of 5]