Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest begins with a sort of reversed perp walk: New patient R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) strolls into the mental ward for the first time, escorted by prison guards and grinning from ear to ear. His handcuffs get released and a sudden exhilarating feeling washes over him, as if freedom has finally been rendered a physical space. McMurphy stares up the spiral staircase at a few curious patients, hooting into the air and spontaneously kissing one of the guards, a performer center stage for a legion of potential admirers. This man is obviously not crazy, or at least not in the same sense as the conflicted range of patients Forman captures in a slow, methodical montage proceeding McMurphy’s introduction. No, McMurphy is an emotional opportunist, but over the course of Forman’s meticulously constructed film, this very sane disregard for authority will evolve from simple selfishness into a more complex brand of selflessness, one that violently confronts modern-day stigmas within the institutions for the mentally insane through brash charisma and anger.
On first glance, the mental ward is an upgrade from the prison work farm that was McMurphy’s previous residence, but this attitude changes quickly as the rhythm, repetitions, and contradictions of daily life in the cuckoo’s nest begin to erode his rebellious arrogance and free spirit. As McMurphy tests the limits of power instituted by Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) and her staff of orderlies, his small acts of entertaining disobedience grow in nature, creating a dual response in his mentally ill colleagues. Certain members, like the stuttering Billy (Brad Dourif), flock to McMurphy’s striking persona, relishing the outlandish bursts of energy from a distance, while others like the academic Harding (William Redfield) question it at every turn. Stuck in the middle is the gargantuan Native American called Chief (Will Sampson), a sleeping giant silently observing the proceedings with one foot on each side of the opinion aisle.
This collective of unsettled men makes for a film completely dependent on the relationship between physical performance and subtle camera movement. Forman allows his actors to be consumed by their parts, giving them the temporal freedom to evolve facial ticks, body contortions, and layered expressions, building each scene from the ground up. But these method performances wouldn’t be nearly as effective without Haskel Wexler’s wonderfully fluid and roving camera, a sly but giving fly-on-the-wall perspective covering every confrontation with amazing objectivity. These two forces of nature, the act of inhabitation and documentation, form the aesthetic bond that feeds into Forman’s thematic treatise on quality of life.
This dynamic works best during the buildup and aftermath to those scenes One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is most known for, whether it’s the pure vitriolic look McMurphy gives Nurse Ratched immediately before joyously recreating the World Series game for his baseball deprived compatriots, or Chief smiling proudly as he watches McMurphy run up and down the basketball court yelling obscenities in all directions. In its own way, the film becomes defined by the small transitions of supporting characters as opposed to the grandiose showboating of Nicholson’s lead performance, a trend that culminates in Chief’s speech to McMurphy about his father. “They were working on him, just like they’re working on you,” he says, warning his friend about the dangers of challenging institutional power. It’s one of those quiet moments of reflection that gains resonance years down the road, and now with some distance it speaks to the social and economic angst of an entire generation.
Not as biting as the disavowal of the immediate family in Bob Rafelson’s masterpiece Five Easy Pieces, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest allows McMurphy a sense of family and companionship during the latter half of the film, a devoted sense of feeling that inevitably leads to his downfall. And the emotional devastation of the ending remains potent 35 years after its initial release. There’s so much charisma and charm to the film that the breakneck denouement can’t help but punch you in the gut. As Chief finally “tries” and succeeds to lift the granite water dispenser, thrusting it out the window and escaping into the wilderness, the full impact of McMurphy’s presence as a cause for change comes into focus. Seeing that energy, that lust for life in someone else, becomes the film’s greatest joy, and watching it drain out of Nicholson’s character its greatest tragedy. When such a spark becomes labeled insane, or queer, or unnatural, the true definition of crazy becomes a socially accepted cure.
The 1080p high-definition transfer pays loving tribute to the beautifully sublime cinematography by Haskel Wexler and the inventive compositions Milos Forman uses during the volatile conversations in the mental ward. The white nurse's uniforms and orderly's suits become a key color motif throughout, blending with the musky grey of the hospital corridors to form a conformist vision. The shadow levels are perfectly balanced, especially in the nighttime sequences on the ward that depend on clarity of movement to convey character position and intent. The few exterior shots, especially the famous boat-trip sequence, are all crisp and clear, stark reminders of the dynamic outside world looking back at this closed-off section of society. Since much of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest relies heavily on layered dialogue exchanges, the Blu-ray version pays close attention to the dense mixing levels, making almost every line clear—with the exception being a few of Chief's key lines.
This collector's edition is anchored by an 87-minute feature entitled "Completely Cuckoo," an extensive but dated collection of rare interviews, on-set footages, and archival clips that paints a complete picture of the film's complicated production process. The feature spans from Kirk Douglas's adaptation of Ken Kesey's book for the stage to son Michael's long gestating desire to make a film version. Many of the now-famous cast members fondly remember the unique experiences of shooting on location in the Oregon State Mental Hospital, and rare rehearsal footage makes for fascinating film history. But interviews with lead actor Jack Nicholson are noticeably absent. Aside from the theatrical trailer, the intuitive and informative commentary track by director Milos Forman, and deleted scenes, Warner Bros. accompanies the Blu-ray disc with some impressive memorabilia. Included are a 52-page bound booklet covering the film's evolution from stage to screen, a reproduction of the original press book, a full card deck of cast-inspired playing cards, four mini-reproductions of original worldwide theatrical posters, and cast/character photo cards.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest remains a stunning collective of method acting and 1970s social critique, even more so with this pristine and dense Blu-ray collector's edition from Warner Bros.