Fun Fact! The main orderly in this is played by Scatman Crothers, aka the voice of Hong Kong Phooey. Didn’t that just blow your mind?
Cuckoo’s Nest is frequently cited as the greatest film of all time. Frequently. Short of upping Shawshank Redemption, Godfathers I and II, Casablanca, The Wild Thornberries Movie and Star Wars, if anything else. Upon watching it, it was initially kind of hard for me to get why. But I’ll come to my thoughts after the obligatory synopsis-sans-spoilers (to which you’re accustomed – if not, welcome!)…
Jack Nicholson is R.P. MacMurphy (aka Mac), a lazy but rebellious convict who’s been moved over from a prison farm to a mental institute after he showed symptoms of psychological disorder. From the start, we know he’s pulling a fast one. As Mac settles into what he assumes will be a cushier life amongst a host of colourful characters (a very young cast of Christopher Lloyd, Danny DeVito and Brad Dourif amongst them), he comes across the fearsome Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who rules the roost with an understated, but oppressive, fist.
Mac’s urge to cause mayhem for Ratched and to inspire similar rebellion in his fellow inmates takes up the focus of the story, as his methods of pushing Ratched to the brink fail to take off as brilliantly as he’d hoped. The road to revolution is a hard one, and there’s some truly brilliant moments in the last twenty-thirty minutes.
As plots go, it’s fairly standard. A newcomer to an old and battered-around regime comes along and is inspired to make changes, only to find it an uphill struggle. With a likeable and charismatic leading man in Nicholson, we’re behind him every step of the way. This is even taking into account that he is doing labour as punishment for the rape of a fifteen-year-old. This is established early on, though it really doesn’t impede on his protagonist status. We know he’s a bad’un, and we accept it. This is far more a story about the existing roll call of characters at the institute, and what will become if them.
Which is where I’ll come back to that thread I left dangling at the start of this entry. I really found it hard to pigeonhole Cuckoo’s Nest. Is it a thriller? Is it a black comedy? Is it a satire? And that’s when it dawned on me – it can’t be labelled. This film transcends so many themes, emotions and techniques that it simply refuses to be pigeonholed. Without being massively gushing, I think that’s bloody brilliant. There are moments of suspense, humour, despair and glory in equal measure. And I think it’s rare to get such a balance. Of the films I’ve watched so far this year, I’ve not seen anything that fires squarely on all cylinders.
Tying it up, it’s a great cast – basic characters, but even the background film have clear personalities – and Fletcher is quietly and modestly menacing enough to get you on side. There’s some great twists thrown about that mess with Mac’s grand scheme, and the ending marches right up out of nowhere. I’m not sure I totally enjoyed the last scene, but I guess it was necessary. It’s bittersweet, like much of the film.
PRO: Great characters, great performances, and as mentioned, a real genre-hopper.
CON: As the plot is nowhere complex enough to fill every second of running time (see The Prestige), it feels as if it’s stretched a bit thinly over the latter half.
OVERALL: 9/10. It’s clear to see why Cuckoo is so revered as it is once you’ve mulled it over. It’s very unique, and the performances are absolutely brilliant. It didn’t quite tick every box for me, somehow – while the climax, as I’ve said, is probably necessary – it does cultivate a massive downer. I can’t really downgrade a film because the ending wasn’t to my taste (and it’s based on a book, so they’re adapting after all).. but I think Mac is missing one last oomph at the end of his character arc. Plus, I do still prefer watching John Candy burning out a car, and Jeff Goldblum going ape-poopy.