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Randle McMurphy is no hero, which is precisely the point. Immortalized by Jack Nicholson in the 1975 film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, McMurphy shows up at an Oregon mental hospital intent on winding down a criminal sentence in the most leisurely fashion possible.
McMurphy's ruse is thin - cellophane transparent - and there's no real indication that once his sentence is up his criminal behavior will cease. What other judgment is there to make of a man convicted of statutory rape who will lie his way in to a mental hospital and who cavorts with prostitutes while he is an inmate/patient.
But also ...
But also, there is what McMurphy does after he arrives - the way he connects with fellow patients, seeing something in them that an institution, with all of its rules and protocols and procedures, seemingly can not. McMurphy isn't there to achieve something like this by any means - to grasp a better understanding of his fellow man or save souls or create bonds. Indeed, there doesn't seem to be any intention at all on his part, other than curing his own boredom.
But it happens anyway. It happens when he chatters so much and on so many different occasions that he is able to draw a few words out of a seemingly mute Native American he cringe-inducingly refers to as Chief (Will Sampson). It happens when he is able to get a serial stutterer named Billy Bibbit (Brad Dourif) to smooth out his sentences. It happens when he swipes a charter fishing boat and takes half the hospital out for a day of literal and figurative freedom and release. It's hard to think of a more surprisingly cathartic scene than that commandeered vessel cutting across blue, sun-dappled water.
Later on, it's hard to think of a more devastating scene than McMurphy being rolled back to his bed after undergoing a lobotomy - all of his character and personality rubbed out like a drawing in the dirt.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a film about institutions and what it means to be institutionalized - to become a cog in a machine that after awhile seems to exist more for its own perpetuation than for the people it purports to serve.
What more is there to say about a film that contrasts an incorrigible, selfish character like Randle McMurphy with a dour, sadistic, unquestioning foot soldier like Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher). McMurphy rolls in to the joint with a purely self-interested agenda and yet still manages to find humanity in the people by which he is surrounded. Nurse Ratched is there all along - and presumably not the repeat criminal that her foil is - and yet she is totally incapable of doing anything of real meaning for the people in her care other than shoveling pharmaceuticals down their throats and wielding a tiny bit of power.
This is the threat Randle McMurphy represents, and it is a threat that ultimately can not be countenanced by the institution. What to do with Randle McMurphy? For the institution, there must be an action of some sort, and there is only one sort when you don't have any answers: wipe the problem away entirely, in this case with a ghastly medical procedure that robs people of what makes them human.
For the rest of us, there is only horror and frustration - a frustration borne out of the fact that a lobotomy is a very simple solution to a very complex challenge, that of the human mind and spirit. Indeed, its only real value is its expediency, and that type of answer is no real solution whatsoever.