McMurphy (Jack Nicholson)
A Dangerous Man?
Uh oh. How's this one gonna go?
When R.P McMurphy first enters the mental hospital, we might not be sure what to think of him. He is, to put it simply, a wild card.
First of all, compared to the other patients, he doesn't seem all that crazy. We know that he went to prison for five assaults and statutory rape, but we also know that McMurphy is clever about getting his own way. That's why it's not surprising to hear that some of the people at McMurphy's prison think he's "faking it to get out of [his] work detail." We can't be sure, but it definitely seems as if McMurphy is more sane than not.
But just because McMurphy isn't crazy doesn't mean he's not bad news for the folks in charge of this psych ward. A doctor sums it up quite neatly when he says, "I think he's dangerous. He's not crazy, but he's dangerous."
What makes him so dangerous? His brain, of course. McMurphy shows just how smart he can be when he escapes from the prison and uses a stolen school bus to take all his mental ward buddies on a joyride and impromptu fishing trip. And then there are his anger issues. We don't really see what McMurphy is capable of until he tries to kill Nurse Ratched while Charlie Cheswick stands by and yells, "Don't Mac!" It's pretty clear that he would have finished the job if Mr. Washington hadn't hit him from behind.
It's safe to say that McMurphy has a huge problem with authority, and he's so charismatic that sometimes we might lose sight of the fact that he's got a lot of violence in him.
He's not just some poor misunderstood guy. He's a violent dude who has sex with underage girls and who excuses his actions by saying that that's just the way he is. When questioned about his history of assault, McMurphy downplays his actions by saying, "I fight and f*** too much." As if it's not a big deal.
Rebel with a Cause
If there's one thing R.P. McMurphy hates, it's people having authority over him. And he's especially not cool with a prim and proper woman like Nurse Ratched bossing him around. At first, McMurphy obeys Nurse Ratched because he wants to make a good impression and convince people he doesn't belong in the mental ward. That's why he says, "I'm sorry, ma'am" when Ratched tells him to get his hand off the nurse station's window.
The longer Mac sticks around the hospital, the more the cracks start to show in his phony niceness. Every time he tries to get his own way, Nurse Ratched outsmarts him, like when McMurphy wants to watch the World Series. Nurse Ratched puts the matter to a vote two times to show she's being fair, but McMurphy sees that she's only doing this because she knows she can make things go her way. That's why McMurphy tells the room full of doctors that he doesn't think Nurse Ratched is honest. In his words, "She likes a rigged game, know what I mean?"
Deep down, McMurphy is that little kid at the back of the class who always likes to act out and pull pranks while the teacher tries to get the rest of the children to behave. He's a troublemaker, plain and simple. And it might be the case that sometimes, the patients in the mental ward need a troublemaker to break Nurse Ratched's spell over them. But McMurphy's rebellion can only take him so far. After all, the chips are stacked against him to begin with and Nurse Ratched is too smart to let him get away with his antics for very long.
McMurphy's cleverness nearly pays off at the end of the movie. When Candy shows up with her friend Rose, McMurphy is ready to escape the hospital through a window. But instead of leaving, he asks Candy to have sex with Billy Bibbit because he feels sorry for the kid. He tells Candy, "I want you to get a hold of Billy. All you gotta do is one little thing." In this instance, McMurphy shows his sympathy for people (albeit men a lot more than women). He ends up falling asleep before he can escape and pays the price for it.
When Billy Bibbit goes off and kills himself, McMurphy blames Nurse Ratched and tries to kill her. This is the kind of violence that landed McMurphy in prison in the first place. He's acted like a fun-loving rebel for all of the movie, but now we see the part of him that's capable of, well, murder. McMurphy is stopped before he can kill Ratched, but as a consequence of his actions the hospital gives him a lobotomy.
Removing part of McMurphy's brain completely strips him of all rebellion and turns him into a walking zombie. Anything he might have once stood for is now gone. The other men in the ward want to keep believing that McMurphy is still the great rebel, so they make up rumors about how he has escaped, saying "He beat up two of the attendants and escaped." But we see for ourselves that McMurphy is now just a shadow of his old self, a walking drone who will never rebel again. Chief Bromden is so upset that he can't bear to let McMurphy live on in this degraded state. So he grabs a pillow and smothers the guy.
McMurphy's death is super depressing because it shows how conformity and rules will triumph over individual expression and freedom (unless you're Chief Bromden). But then again, there are lots of rebels out there who deserve more sympathy than McMurphy. It's important to remember that no matter how much we might like him, McMurphy was never a great guy.