“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” Soars Triumphantly


“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” stars Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher. (Courtesy of Facebook)

Mental health is at the epicenter of modern American art and culture, with films like “Joker” garnering critical acclaim and winning two Academy Awards. However, one film ignited the future renaissance of mental health and film: “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” At the forefront of such a revolution was one of the earliest actors to play the Joker: the eccentrically electric Jack Nicholson. With his performance, Nicholson was able to transform what was supposed to be a somber mental institution into something reminiscent of a fishing trip where the fun never ends.

Adapted from Ken Kesey’s novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” follows a belligerent Randall Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) who is committed to a mental institution to avoid serving the remainder of his sentence at a work farm for the statutory rape of a 15-year-old girl. He succeeds in his mission upon the very nascent stages of the film, as he is seen jovially dancing his way through the immaculate halls of the institution. However, what McMurphy would fail to see in these early moments, is that he was not dancing his way to the liberation he believed, but instead into a spider web of demise woven by the stoically porcelain-faced Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). 

Upon McMurphy’s introduction into the institution’s routine, the audience is treated to a rather delightful ensemble of characters. It is McMurphy’s initial interactions with these characters that come to shape the story of the film substantially. He is seen as the ray of light the institution needed to shake the routine of sedatives, examinations and soul-sucking schedules. McMurphy’s demeanor is quite infectious; his actions massively influence the hierarchy of the hospital. From gambling cigarettes to inciting riots, there is nothing Randall Patrick McMurphy won’t do to disrupt the order established by counterpart Nurse Ratched. It is in McMurphy’s

refusal to conform to the normalcy Nurse Ratched has prodigiously shoved down her patients’ throats that the film truly excels. Though McMurphy seems unbreakable, Nurse Ratched holds an ultimatum of devastating proportions.

Arguably the zenith of the film is the never-ending conflict between polar-opposites McMurphy and Nurse Ratched. Before his arrival, Nurse Ratched reigned with almost godlike authority over her patients, for no one would dare defy her. However, when McMurphy enters the institution, it is clear that an unstoppable force has met an immovable object, as where Nurse Ratched seeks to establish stringent rules, McMurphy only endeavors to break them. In this power struggle between sanity and insanity, the audience will easily find themselves gravitating towards McMurphy and the patients that back him in this battle. It is in this respect where the film is particularly interesting, as it not only tells a compelling story but raises profound moral and ethical questions. Nurse Ratched is indeed as cunningly dreadful as her name suggests; however, she is also just a nurse who is, by law, supposed to ensure that her patients adhere to her code of conduct.

However, the audience is bound to despise her and support the likable and even strangely relatable McMurphy because he represents everything an audience loves: courage, swagger, braggadocio, bawdiness, strength and overall fearlessness. In this respect, the audience may even find themselves perplexed on an ethical level, seeing that they are rooting for a rule-breaking libertine with no sense of respect for his superiors. Perhaps this is because he personifies the ever-tempting fantasy of being oblivious to all rules and looking cool while doing so. However, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is not a fantasy and Nurse Ratched is not to be underestimated. For she is the god of her domain, and McMurphy is something of a devil seeking to overthrow her authority by recruiting the “rebellious angels” of the institution’s patients. If this almost biblical allusion is any indication as to who will stand triumphant, the audience is bound to shed tears.

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” is far more than a story telling the tale of good and evil. Rather, it is an epic that, unlike many films, executes profound concepts of social order, mental health and even some lighthearted comedy. In the storm that rages within the walls of Nurse Ratched’s institution, both the twist of tragedy and Nicholson’s performance are elements audiences won’t forget.