This is the grand-daddy of flicks about the reality of mental health treatment gone berserk, and pretty much any TV episode or movie taking place in an asylum or psych ward borrows from it. The story centers on a crook serving part of his sentence in a mental hospital to avoid hard labor. But as he leads other patients into (mostly) harmless mischief, he realizes that their various conditions aren't being treated so much as contained and exacerbated by a sadistic nurse. His rebellion against this deeply broken system leads to some breakthroughs and some serious consequences for his mentally ill comrades.
In a sea of heartbreaking moments, it's hard to spot the one that rattles us all the most. While some might peg the eventual lobotomy and euthanasia of our protagonist, I've always been more haunted by the suicide of a timid young man with a stutter. Terrified by the Nurse's threat to tell his mother of his recent behavior, he barricades himself in an office and decides to die rather than face some meager punishment. It's this fundamental misunderstanding of mental illness, that some threat or consequence can control behavior, that is chilling
Before Hollywood remakes this film and ruins it, let's talk about the genius of the original. Guy "Mandarin" Pierce has a form of amnesia that prevents him from making new memories. So to have the audience share this frustrating experience, the movie is told in reverse order. We cannot know what's happened earlier in the film because we don't get to see the beginning until the end. It's amazing how well this works and while the illness is more a result of an injury than illness, the social stigma and functional difficulties are all too similar. A great view for anyone who's not seen it.
The sad part is a story (we'll leave it at that) about someone with the same memory issue. Their spouse felt that they were making the illness up, and asked them to repeatedly give her insulin for her diabetes. Her goal was to prove that he could remember that he just gave her a shot, but the result is that he gave her insulin until she fell into a coma and died. Like I said at the beginning, it's hard for those not affected by mental illness to fathom how those who are affected work. Sometimes the default reaction is to assume they're faking it, or lying, which isn't healthy or helpful.
Still good movies though.