Sunday, April 3, 2016

AFI Top 100: #33 "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest"

Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)

Sometimes a break is all you need. Three weeks was a bit long, granted, and I've felt the pull to return for many days now. But it's appropriate, in a way, that my venture back into movies and sharing thoughts on this blog is to talk about AFI Top 100 flick, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, coming in at #33—though thankfully, my "break from the world" was far less dire than the men featured in this story. Approaching a huge milestone in this epic journey (the 20s!), we continue the American Film Institute's love affair with the films of the 1970's, considered one of the most celebrated decades of cinema, and it's not hard to understand why. Not only did movies begin to explore what could be done visually, pushing the envelope in its dialogue, violence, and scope, they also began looking closely at the psychological.

Based on the novel written by Ken Kesey in 1962 and directed by Miloš Forman, this film remains one of only three features to win all "Top 5" Oscar prizes: Best Picture, along with Director, Screenplay, Actor, and Actress. (The other 2 have already appeared on this list, here and here). It also introduced a slew of acting talent to the world, some that went on to be more iconic than the film that launched their careers.

After feigning mental illness in order to be moved from an Oregon prison labor camp to the nearby mental institution in hopes of riding out his sentence in peace, Randle Patrick McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) finds himself surrounded by men from every walk of life—and every level of sanity. Quickly earning the trust and adoration of the other patients due to his brash and reckless sense of freedom, McMurphy unknowingly begins to earn the ire of Head Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) for the very same reasons. Skilled at sussing out the insecurities of the inmates and using it against them to swell her authority and power, Nurse Ratched's hard and unforgiving oppression collides with McMurphy's determination to maintain his sanity, protect his new friends, and eventually be set free. The manipulative and villainous Nurse Ratched, however, has other plans in mind, and she's willing to compromise the lives of the other patients to ensure she comes out on top.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, both the film and the novel, dives into our deepest fears as human beings, that someone—or more than one someone—might consider us irrefutably insane. What is a sane person to do? For McMurphy, the entire situation is like a game. At first. But it all becomes far more real and dangerous than he ever could have imagined. Observing the men closely, he recognizes their insecurities and fears just as much as Nurse Ratched does. To say that he's not capable of taking advantage of them, or even that he doesn't, would be a lie. In fact, their desperation to have someone to look up to, to make decisions they're inherently incapable of making, serves McMurphy's purposes well. But as his popularity grows, Ratched practically unhinges her jaw to swallow him whole.

Order, conformity, and obedience. The entire film is one big power struggle. And from the audience, cheers and jeers flow freely as the battle rages on. The hatred we feel for Nurse Ratched becomes so putrid inside of us, it seeps from our eyeballs by the film's end in the form of sniveling rage-tears. Watching a character devolve into such self-righteous villainy is a soul-crushing experience, because there isn't a thing we can do—and Louise Fletcher is a goddamn mastermind. Shifting from a harmless pain-in-the-ass to a manipulative devil-spawn is not easy transition, but never once does she overtly betray her inner workings, the smirk never leaving her eyes. Since I can't actually look directly at her without wanting to strangle her (McMurphy and I have that in common), I'll simply applaud Fletcher with my eyes averted. She is just that good.

Nicholson as McMurphy creates a perfect counterpart to Ratched's inexhaustible control. And he's not without his faults. He's slick and intelligent, a trickster and master manipulator, but he doesn't lack empathy. In fact, it very clearly informs his decision to push the patients out of their comfort zones and challenging them to overcome their fears. He doesn't shame them, but he doesn't coddle them, either. Ratched and McMurphy can see through one another, the strategies and the mind-games—the primary difference is that Ratched can't see the damage she's doing(or doesn't want to), and McMurphy can.

This is an actor's film, through and through. The characters are so thoroughly developed, Miloš Forman merely had to point the camera and shoot. Sydney Lassick steals the film as the overwhelmed and squirrely Cheswick. Harmlessly unhinged, his affection for McMurphy comes second to his nagging need for things to be fair. More observant than most, Cheswick is, far and away, my favorite character in the film. Not to be outdone, Brad Dourif (yes, the voice of Chucky) makes his feature film debut as the innocent and anxiously insecure Billy Bibbit, the 'baby' of the group and the most in danger of buckling under Ratched's thumb. The dynamics among the inmates (which also include early roles for Danny DeVito and Christopher Lloyd) keep the energy at peak tension, and we're completely swept away by their laughter and their sadness.

For a film which such dour themes and piercing villainy, Nicholson navigates the story as if it were the comedy of the decade. There is more humor than tragedy, though it is the tragedy (and anger it causes) that is remembered most. It's not difficult to keep your head up while watching this film, because you're never without someone to root for, right up until the closing credits. It's well-rounded that way, and Forman builds an intelligent narrative that is truly unforgettable.

This is a no-brainer AFI Top 100 contender, and a character-driven one at that. There is no mystery to solve, no war to win; only people to meet and wrongs to be righted.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Columbia Pictures]

Check back next time for #32 on the list, The Godfather Part II — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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