When MacMurphy (Jack Nicholson) is committed to a sleepy psychiatric hospital for evaluation he shakes up their mundane routine from under the watchful eye of Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher).
Jack Nicholson is perfectly cast as MacMurphy. Not diagnosed with any specific mental health condition, the unhinged glint in his eyes is enough to keep us guessing at whether he’s really just trying it on. He balances this with charm and humour which make him a magnetic presence. The character’s self-confidence plausibly allows him to pull off impressive feats like taking the patients for a day out fishing and bringing a Christmas party to the ward at night.
This apparent chaos is set against Ratched’s rigid order. While she has an almost villainous status in movie folklore, she’s not evil or vindictive, just cold and officious. While well meaning, she likes things done by the book to the point of tedium, depriving the patients of even simple pleasures. Yet in spite of this she seems to allow conflict in the group to rein free, making for a rather uncomfortable living situation.
It’s rounded off by an excellent ensemble cast including Will Sampson, Brad Dourif’s breakout role, and a somewhat surprising appearance from Danny De Vito, all of whom bring sensitivity to their undefined mental health issues. The result is an adaptation only matched that of Alistair Cookie on Sesame Street.