It’s back in cinemas to celebrate Jack Nicholson’s eightieth birthday. But unlike its frontman, this multi-Oscar-winning drama hasn’t aged particularly well. Adapted from countercultural figurehead Ken Kesey’s novel – itself inspired by his experiences as a psychiatric ward inmate – the film is unlucky in that its central narrative of a roguish free spirit who transforms the lives of those around him has been done to death in the decades since. Moreover its shallow, simplistic take on mental illness still rankles, as does a vicious streak of misogyny.
Nicholson is RP McMurphy, jailed for statutory rape (‘she was 15 going on 30, Doc!’) but moved to the asylum in an effort to curb his wilder tendencies. There he encounters a motley band of fellow inmates, all of them living under the heel of passive-aggressive ball-buster Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), who resolves to snuff out McMurphy’s rebellious tendencies. The performances are riveting: Nicholson plays it big but never tips into smirking caricature. The supporting cast is flawless, with a special mention owed to Brad Dourif as poor, doomed Billy Bibbit. But the script lacks the woozy, otherworldly subtlety of Kesey’s book, relying instead on pop psychology and finger-pointing: once again, it turns out women are to blame for pretty much everything.