One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975)
20th century psychiatry and institutionalism was given a heavy, but arguably well-deserved and nuanced blow when Milos Forman adapted Ken Kesey's acclaimed novel about mental illnesses and treatments - and, according to Kesey and Forman, the often heavy discrepancies between the two. The site is an arguably fairly run-of-the-mill mental asylum in the 1970s, the cast of characters an expected collection of nervous, delusional, schizophrenic and/or psychotic men. And then there is R. P. McMurphy, a 30-something short-tempered but good-hearted rebel who seems to never have grown up. He is serving a sentence for petty crimes and jumps on the chance to become transferred to a mental institution, which he believes will be a more relaxing serving of his sentence than regular prison labour camps. And through Jack Nicholson's perfectly identifiable McMurphy, a character most of us have either been, befriended or dated at some point during our youth, Forman paints the darkest of his many dark portraits of institutionalism. The cold-hearted administrator Nurse Ratched comes off and feels as a large-scale movie villain, but the most scary interpretation of her is that she's not evil, but simply too arrogant and soulless to realize that the theories and doctrines she bases her choices on are wrong. Ratched was probably a dead-ringer for numerous doctors and nurses working in mental institutions during the mid 20th century.
Seen with a great deal of distance, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest's social criticism may not be as relevant anymore; institutions and mental health care has gone through major reforms since. But the film, like so many of Milos Forman's other films, still works brilliantly because of the vibrant human drama it offers. Jack Nicholson is seething with energy, and the interplay between him and a chillingly authentic Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched elevates the drama to thriller-level suspense. There are also a number of fine supporting performances, the best of which belongs to Brad Dourif in what must be one of the best screen-debuts of all time. To say his career never lived up to this promise would be an enormous understatement, but his work as Billy Bibbit lives on, and so does the rest of Forman's tragic and well-aimed elegy.