Opposing displays of dominance still strike as powerful to this day and considering that’s 40 years down the line, that’s a worthy feat. The villain from most movie quiz questions and Mac’s divide makes for a rewarding cinematic clash. It builds nicely giving you everything from character, heart and tension and light relief also.
Randle ‘Mac’ McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) on sentence for assaults and statutory rape gets moved to a mental facility for evaluating to see whether he’s truly ill or just dangerous. The ward he’s on is run by unflinching Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) who keeps her patients in line until Mac’s presence spoils her usual leadership. During his stay he becomes friends with the rag tag of people inside but is always looking for a way out.
Milos Forman’s feature deservedly scooped the Best Picture, it’s majority set within the dull walls of the mental institution does serve nicely as a look at how those times deemed society to be in order, this microcosm idea lasts the ages always doing wonders to shine a light back on the establishments trying to keep us in line, from Eisenstein’s ‘Battleship Potemkin’ to this very picture. The way Forman builds the film is paramount for liking certain characters and making the more clinical moments that much colder. It does every now and then feel very claustrophobic, this setting and the shots giving you the vaguest thought of how being cooped up would feel.
The joy of seeing McMurphy stand up and fight for his new found friends is heartwarming, it’s a lovely sequence to see him giving them a chance even if they might not take it. His gift of landing the ward Christmas, some ladies and a hope of something less mundane breaks their routine and shows however Jack the laddish and possibly dangerous Mac is, he’s a much kinder soul than the stony faced Nurse. The boat outing is a fun burst of escaping energy where he takes the patients on a fishing excursion but it loses the pent up frustrations manifesting inside the ward and is a little bit too long.
Bo Goldman and Lawrence Hauben’s screenplay is thoughtful and smart. The way McMurphy interacts with each character is studied and gives the audience something to enjoy, think about or possibly dislike, he’s not the nicest guy after all. The set up of basketball giving the notion that Chief can help sway a vote on the World Series is neatly penned in. Ken Kesey’s source novel is of course the material to credit in coming up with a cold villainess, a smarmy charming central crook and a host of others that play into the ideas of sane vs. insane. The bloody and bold wrap up of the story is hard and slaps across the face like a wake up call, showing the true harsh nature of these places.
Jack Nicholson demonstrates what a fine and convicted actor he is, a towering presence even opposite the literally towering presence of Will Sampson. Nicholson is cocky, full of smirks and winks as the lead but you can feel the gutting realisation of what he’s involved with as the movie progresses. He gives Mac flaws and you still root for his cause, the highs and lows are a force. Louise Fletcher’s role can be summed up by being mean and focused but Fletcher gives her Nurse Ratched persona a grave stare that worms into you, she always looks like she’s planning and her concern on the arrival of disruptive Mac gives you even more fear as she tries to fully stamp down on her mind numbing routines and therapies. Brad Dourif gives warmth to stuttering Billy who showcases the trusting nature of mankind, he also becomes someone that looks up to Mac like a father. Danny DeVito has a wry worrying smile on his face throughout and is lost in the madness of his circumstances, cheating, not getting things at all and being wide eyed in most scenarios. This was a big break not only for DeVito but for Christopher Lloyd who plays Taber with gusto as you’d expect from his subsequent roles.
Thoroughly detailed acting and a thoroughly engaging plot that demonstrates the oppression of individuals against the system, which will stand in movie history as a huge classic for years to come.