Milos Forman's 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' was a ray of hope for a nation on the verge of losing its will to fight. One of the most celebrated American films of the 1970s, it premiered at the Chicago Film Festival in 1975 to rapturous applause. News quickly spread that the film was one of the greats; long lines formed at the box office, with many viewers going back for repeat viewings. The film's protagonist, R.P. McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), a disenfranchised, rebellious delinquent who is wrongly institutionalized at a mental health facility run by the tyrannical Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher), became an emblematic antihero for a generation that feared democracy was slipping through its fingers. The most embraced and remembered scenes fit the growing antiauthoritarian sentiments of the time -- McMurphy's defiant stands against Ratched, the fishing trip escape, comedic poker games, and a rousing inmate rebellion -- but 'Cuckoo's Nest' was more than just a ribald antiestablishment comedy, it was a deeply political film, directed by a European, that tore at the very fabric of America's moral hypocrisy.
Based on Ken Kesey's runaway 1962 best-selling novel, 'Cuckoo's Nest' is not really about mental illness; Forman and his screenwriters, Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman, purposely downplayed the wide-ranging issues Kesey approached in his novel, streamlining and cutting away to focus on McMurphy's liberating influence on the inmates. The characters that surround McMurphy are played broadly as lovable crazies. Ratched is portrayed as a gross caricature, so sterilized and self-righteous she is the overbearing mother gone berserk.
The performances are flawless. Fletcher is so good because she completely sublimates all of the emotions her character refuses to process, but with just enough humanity to avoid being monstrous. Nicholson's Oscar-winning performance holds 'Cuckoo's Nest' together. He is Hollywood's greatest rebel, able to convey the widest range of emotions with a single lift of an eyelid or a twist of the lip. Nicholson must walk an emotional tightrope in the role, and he does so flawlessly. He is a man on the brink, teetering between the easy laughs and harmless pranks of the first half of the picture and, in the crushing second half, the growing realization that he may not escape. The scene where McMurphy realizes he may have made the wrong choice, nearly three-fifths of the way into the picture, is a small masterpiece that may be the finest piece of Nicholson's acting ever committed to celluloid.
'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' was the first film in over twenty years to win all five of the top Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Actress, and Screenplay). Some found it odd that Forman, born in Czechoslovakia in 1932, directed one of the great critiques of American morality, but who better than the leader of the Czech new wave -- his early films include 'Loves of a Blonde' (1965), 'and 'The Fireman's Ball' (1968) -- to so cleverly use humor and irony to dissect an America on the verge of institutional autocracy? McMurphy's final victory is not a hollow one. He may have lost the battle, but his spirit has won the war. 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' was a watershed of American cinema that still has the power to instill hope and courage in a world sorely in need of both.
'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' comes to Blu-ray in a 1080p/VC-1 encode (1.85:1). The film was remastered for standard DVD fairly recently, in a good but not great presentation. This first-ever Blu-ray version is certainly the best I've ever seen the film look, though I still can't say this is really the kind of material that lends itself to high-def.
'Cuckoo's Nest' is far from a visually showy film. The palette borders on the plain, with the white walls of the hospital hardly helping matters. Any prominent hues are at least realistic and warm, with little visible noise and nice fleshtones. The source, while nicely cleaned up of most major blemishes (though some speckles still irritated), does sport a thin veneer of grain throughout. The result is certainly smooth and film-like, but not pristine. Sharpness is wanting, with the transfer usually pretty flat and never enjoying any particular level of depth or detail. The look is appropriate to the time period, however, and the VC-1 encode is well done with no obvious compression artifacts. Considering the material I can't say any fan of the film will be disappointed, but this is hardly a new demo disc for your home theater.
Warner provides only an English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (640kbps) mix for 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,' plus a host of mono dub and subtitle options. Lest anyone complain about the lack of a high-res track for the film, quite frankly I'm surprised Warner even bothered with a 5.1 remix -- this might as well be mono.
Surround use is next to non-existent. There is rarely minor ambiance, let alone discrete effects. The talky nature of the picture further hampers any sense of envelopment. Jack Nitzsche's minimal if effective score is balanced lightly in the mix, and only front and center. Dialogue sounds fine for the time period, if a bit compressed in the higher ranges. Low bass is also flat as a board. There is nothing at all wrong with this mix, it's just about as basic as you can get.
Warner previously released a fine special edition of 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' as a two-disc DVD a few years back. All of those bonus materials are ported over here (still in 480p/i/MPEG-2 video), plus the studio has added in its "Digi-Book" packaging for a nicely-presented Blu-ray. (Note that the same multitude of subtitle options included on the main feature are also available on the video-based extras.)
'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' is a true classic. The winner of multiple Oscars, the film works expertly both as an anti-establishment polemic and a transformative emotional experience. It's simply a must-see. This Blu-ray is nicely done as well, with video and audio that are probably as good as the material will allow, and an insightful package of supplements. Sure, 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' is never going to be a demo disc, but the strength of the film and this presentation demand that you add it to your Blu-ray library.