One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is the third film in the Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection that revolves around a central struggle of the individual against institutionalization.
Like Cool Hand Luke and A Clockwork Orange, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest centers around an anti-hero, R. P. McMurphy, played by the incomparable Jack Nicholson in an Oscar-winning performance. McMurphy’s moral alignment is somewhere between that of the roguish Luke Jackson and the sociopathic Alex DeLarge, but his immense charisma is every bit as potent as theirs.
One of the most important elements of this film is that some of the early scenes are intentionally dull, in order to highlight the soul-destroying drudgery of the mental hospital. As McMurphy becomes more vocal, the scenes get far more lively, but his energy contrasts with the void of the defeated, morose, long-term patients.
Gradually, we get some of the Christ-like themes that were so prominent in Cool Hand Luke, as McMurphy pushes back against a system that robs the patients of their humanity. The difference is Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched, who is a much more nuanced character than the one-dimensional “Man with No Eyes” from Cool Hand Luke.
Nurse Ratched genuinely believes that she’s doing what’s best for these patients, and it’s only when she begins to lose control of them in the presence of new alpha McMurphy that her own fragility and human weaknesses become obvious.