The movie opens outside and brings us into a mental institution, along with Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher) It seems to be a very quiet and orderly place full of orderlies with sparkling white uniforms, and the inmates all sleeping. Pills are soon sorted and handed out single file.
The environment is interrupted by McMurphy's arrival. He can't help smirking to himself, laughing, even kissing on of the cops escorting him. He's very happy to be there. While his personal things are catalogued, Murphy gets acquainted with the inmates. He's amused that Chief, (Will Sampson) an enormous Native American, is deaf and dumb. Chief just stares while Murphy whoops loudly to test his hearing. McMurphy then interrupts a quiet poker game and is called to a meeting with Dr. Spivey.(Dean R. Brooks)
Dr. Spivey asks him why he thinks he's been sent to the institution. McMurphy throws it back to Dr, Spivey asking what the report says. Spivey says,
"It says you've been belligerent, talked when unauthorized, been resentful in attitude towards work in general, that you're lazy..."
McMurphy: "Chewing gum in Class?"
Dr. Spivey tells him that they want him to be evaluated to see if he's mentally ill, and asks why they would want him evaluated. McMurphy tells him "Near as I can figure, it's because I fight and fuck too much."
Spivey reveals that McMurphy has been sent to the institution from a prison work farm and that they suspect he was faking being crazy to get out of work. He points out that McMurphy has been arrested five times for fighting, McMurphy points out that Rocky Marciano's had forty fights and that makes him a millionare. It turns out McMurphy was in prison for statutory rape. Dr. Spivey tells McMurphy that they'll be studying him in detail for some time to make an evaluation.
Nurse Ratched, soon afterwards leads exercises, followed by group therapy. She reads a problem in Harding's (William Redfield) file about his suspicions towards his wife and then opens the comment up to discussion. After no one will volunteer, she turns back to Harding, who reveals that he can only speculate, and that he is not talking about only his wife but relationships in general as they relate to all existence. His explanation is heckled by Taber (Christopher Lloyd) who doesn't understand Harding's intellectual concerns. McMurphy chuckles as the two bicker about it. Cheswick (Sydney Lassick) starts trying to defend Harding, and gets himself exasperated. Harding attempts to calm Cheswick down. He calls the room out for accusing him of being gay, because they called him "peculiar" Nurse Ratched smiles slightly at the chaos all around her.
McMurphy gets out in the yard and immediately starts eyeying the fence, and a bus leaving with some of the inmates. He starts trying to teach Chief to play basketball. One of the orderlies gives him a hard time, pointing out that the chief can't hear a word he says. McMurphy continues regardless, climbing onto Mancini's back to simulate the Chief's height and show him how to dunk the ball in the basket. Although he's unsuccessful Nurse Ratched watches from the window with interest.
McMurphy starts running a poker game. He has to keep explaining the procedure's to Martini (Danny Devito) and starts getting frustrated when nobody understands what they're doing. He alarms a nurse by entering the nurse's station and Nurse Ratched quickly comes to eject him. He goes up to the medication counter and asks Nurse Ratched to turn the music down, shouting to illustrate the difficulty they have talking. She doesn't bend on it and points out that his hand is staining her window. Another nurse hands him medication, and when he asks what it is says "It's just medicine, It's good for you." He refuses to take it because he doesn't know what it is and Nurse Ratched tells him that if he won't take it orally, they'll give it to him another way. He acts as if he swallows it, but when Harding asks "why he didn't tell her to go fuck herself," he shows Harding that he didn't swallow it, spitting it out. He bets the men $1.00 each that "In one week, I can put a bug so far up her ass, she don't know whether to shit or wind her wristwatch."
Nurse Ratched reopens the conversation about Harding's wife. But McMurphy chimes in before she can look for volunteers, suggesting that they change the schedule so they can watch the World Series. She clearly dislikes the suggestion and counters that this change could be disruptive to some men on the ward and
tells McMurphy they can put it to a vote. Nurse Ratched appears pleased when despite his rallying for them to raise their hands they don't respond, no doubt fearing retaliation.
Harding starts planning an escape to watch the world series in a bar downtown, and starts taking bets that he can do it by lifting a heavy marble sink and putting it through the wall. He strains to lift it over and over but doesn't budge it in the least. Walking off he tells the watching men
"But I tried, didn't I, goddamn it? At least I did that."
Nurse Ratched has another session going, this time focusing on Billy (Brad Dourif) Billy is very timid and has a stuttering problem. Nurse Ratched asks if he told a girl how he felt about her. He claims that he did, but everyone laughs at him. She hammers at him that his mother had told her, that he never said a word to the girl. (and she also mentions his suicide attempt) Billy is obviously uncomfortable. Cheswick interrupts pointing out that if Billy isn't comfortable they should talk about something else, he then says that watching the world series would also be good therapy and requests another vote. Nurse Ratched, perturbed agrees to have a new vote.
This time everyone in the group raises their hands, but Nurse Ratched tells them that they need a majority vote and since there are eighteen patients in the ward (nine who aren't there) they don't have the votes to change policy. McMurphy runs to all the patients who aren''t in the meeting but can't get through to any of the others before Nurse Ratched ends the meeting. He finally gets the chief to raise his hand, but this time, nurse Ratched refuses to acknowlede it since the meeting was over and the vote was closed. McMurphy screams at Nurse Ratched to turn the TV on, but she just closes the window. McMurphy then sits at the TV, narrating the game, even though the set isn't on. Everyone catches his enthusiasm, and they start acting as if the game was occurring. Nurse Ratched loses her cool and demands they stop immediately
The scene results in McMurphy getting another appt. with Dr. Spivey. He complains about Nurse Spivey, tellign him that "she ain't honest" Spivey tells McMurphy that they've seen no evidence that he's crazy, and asks him to explain why he's been putting them on. Two other psychologists are in the room, and one of them asks him how he feels about the incident yesterday. McMurphy laughs it off.
McMurphy convinces Chief to help him over the fence and he steals the institute's bus, along with the inmates. He goes to pick up Candy (Marya Small) and brings the guys to see a boat. When someone questions him about the boat he's taking, he claims they're all doctors and that they chartered it earlier. Candy warns him about going back to jail, but he brags that they'll just send them back to the institution. He tells Cheswick to drive and instructs the rest of them on how to fish, before taking Candy into the cabin alone. Their interest in fishing disappears once McMurphy is gone, they try to see what he's doing and Cheswick panics and leaves the steering. Jack rights the situation and they bring the boat back to find the authorities waiting.
At the institution, the high level staff is having a conference. They conclude that he isn't crazy, but he is dangerous. Dr. Spivey wants to send him back to prison, but when Nurse Ratched is asked for her opinion she tells them that not helping him would be passing their problem to someone else.
The inmates are playing basketball against the orderlies, who can't do well because McMurphy has Chief just dropping the ball into the basket for them. During an argument with an orderly, McMurphy realizes that they can hold him indefinitely, and his prison term (68 days) doesn't apply. At a therapy meeting, he confronts Nurse Ratched about it and learns that most of the men are in there voluntarily. Nurse Ratched smiles watching him struggle to grasp why they don't just walk out. He tells them:
"What do you think you are, for Chrissake, crazy or somethin'? Well you're not! You're not! You're no crazier than the average asshole out walkin' around on the streets and that's it."
Nurse Ratched opens the floor to inmates responses. They all have different questions, but Cheswick stands up asserting himself about getting his cigarettes. Nurse Ratched orders him to sit down, which he does, but only for a few minutes, getting up again, this time with an orderly arriving to keep him seated. McMurphy asks the guys to give Cheswick a cigarette, and one of them grabs the lit one from Harding's mouth, which they throw back and forth until he loses it when it ends up in Taber's pant cuff.
Cheswick can't control himself and starts demanding an answer from Nurse Ratched. She tells them that due to McMurphy winning away all their cigarettes, their tub room (where they play poker) are suspended and their cigarettes are to be rationed. Cheswick gets more angry and takes her on directly saying :Rules? PISS ON YOUR FUCKING RULES! I AIN'T NO LITTLE KID!
Taber stands up and starts screaming (the cigarette is burning him) McMurphy realizes Ratched is about to go ballistic and tries to convince Cheswick to sit down. Unable to calm him, McMurphy punches through the glass medication table window and grabs a carton to give to Cheswick. Things soon get completely out of hand when McMurphy punches an orderly trying to confront him. The orderly pins him to the ground and threatens him, when Chief notices and runs over, picking up the orderly as if he was nothing. Many others rush down the hall and restrain them.Cheswick, Chief, an McMurphy are then bound and brought to another are of the institution where the halls are filled with mindless seeming inmates. Chief and McMurphy are given medication but they bring Cheswick somewhere else, which starts him in a panic again. When Chief and McMurphy are alone, Chief says "Thank You." to McMurphy for a piece of gum. Chief reveals that he can talk and hear. McMurphy is ecstatic to find that the Chief fooled them, and tells him they should leave together. They call McMurphy next and strap him to a table and administer electroshock therapy.
McMurphy returns to therapy appearing docile and having difficulty even walking. Everyone holds their breath, stunned, but he winks at Chief, before breaking into his old self to their amusement. Nurse Ratched asks him if he'd like to join the group or rest and he says he'll join. He calls her Mildred and says about his shock therapy "They was giving me ten thousand watts a day, you know, and I'm hot to trot! The next woman takes me on's gonna light up like a pinball machine and pay off in silver dollars!" He politely consents when Ratched retakes control of the meeting.
McMurphy sneaks into the nurses station after Nurse Ratched leaves and calls Candy, to tell her to bring some booze and meet him. He sneaks over to Chief's bed to tell him he's leaving.
McMurphy: I can't take it no more. I gotta get outta here.
Chief Bromden: I can't. I just can't.
McMurphy: It's easier than you think, Chief.
Chief Bromden: For you, maybe. You're a lot bigger than me.
McMurphy: Well Chief, you're about as big as a goddamn tree trunk.
Chief Bromden: My pop was real big. He did like he pleased. That's why everybody worked on him. The last time I seen my father, he was blind and diseased from drinking. And every time he put the bottle to his mouth, he don't suck out of it, it sucks out of him until he shrunk so wrinkled and yellow even the dogs didn't know him.
McMurphy: Killed him, huh?
Chief Bromden: I'm not saying they killed him. They just worked on him. The way they're working on you.
He sees the girls outside, but the night attendant catches him waving at them and tells him to get to bed. He tries to bribe Turkle,(Scatman Crothers) the night orderly, who won't settle for twenty dollars and booze, but insists on some time with one of the girls also. Rather than leaving, the girls come in. McMurphy flickers the light from the nurses station, takes over the loud speaker and announces he's leaving, inviting everyone to party with him. Turkle realizes something's wrong and starts shutting everything down afraid of losing his job. A nurse from another area comes over to check things out. Turkle plays it off like he had snuck a girl in and rushes everyone to bed, however things are too far out of hand at this point, and the inmates drink and party, trashing the ward.
Billy dances with Candy, and McMurphy grabs the keys from Turkle who is passed out drunk. He unlocks a window and says goodbye. Billy seems upset, and tells McMurphy he'll miss him very much but isn't ready to go with him. He tells Billy he'll send a postcard so he'll know where to go when he is. Billy can't help but ask questions about Candy. McMurphy offers him a date with Candy, but insists that it happen right now. He convinces Candy to sleep with Billy and waits for them to finish. He falls asleep in front of the open window and The orderlies and Nurse Ratched find the destroyed ward. She locks everything down,and does a headcount finding Billy missing.
Ratched demands to know if Billy left the grounds but no one answers. They find Billy and Candy lying naked in bed. They all clap as he rushes out of the room putting his pants on, which has Billy grinning from ear to ear. He tells Nurse Ratched that he can explain everything. She asks if he's ashamed, and when he says no, she then threatens to tell his mother. When she keeps pressuring him, Billy claims that McMurphy forced him into the room with Candy, and continues begging her not to tell his mother. She has Billy restrained to wait for a doctor. Mcmurphy scrambles to unlock the window again decking an orderly who tries to stop him. He gets it open and is about to leave when a nurse runs in screaming covered with blood. Everyone rushes over to find Billy has killed himself unable to bear the thought of his mother finding out about Candy. Nurse Ratched, comes in and tells everyone to leave but Mcmurphy completely loses his head and tries to choke her to death, nearly succedding until an orderly hits him from behind.
Soon after, Nurse Ratched is in a neck brace, smiling and checking on the inmates with the intercom. One of them claims that McMurphy escaped, while another claims he's upstairs, meek as a lamb. The Chief listens in, very interested and later watches them walk McMurphy to bed. He approaches McMurphy's bedside and tells him they can escape now but soon realizes that McMurphy's been lobotomized. Chief smothers McMurphy with a pillow, then picks up the marble sink that McMurphy couldn't lift, smashes it through the barred windows and escapes. Taber wakes from the noise and realizing what's happened, starts cheering as Chief runs into the distance.
I think the exaggeration here is necessary, as the inmates he affects are as dead as he is alive, and to counter Nurse Ratched, being conscientiously free would not be enough. He needs to be dangerous, but not malicious and he lives right on that line. McMurphy is a celebration of our risk taking side, our capability for brave and noble failure and our refusal to accept a rule just because it's backed by power. That's McMurphy's history and the path he continues to follow to it's end.
Nurse Ratched is tougher to understand. We can see that she's repressed and controlling, demanding strict adherence to the rules even in their spirit. But in the same way that McMurphy is a flawed example of freedom, she is a flawed example of oppressive control. Why does she even offer a vote to watch the Superbowl, when she could simply say no? She attempts to appear fair, but then obviously "rigs the game." She's not interested in "the rules" as much as her own rules, the active oppression of the inmates. Their depency ensures the continued need for her. Louise Fletcher is simply amazing in this role, and I doubt I've seen a more effective example of portraying cold malice than she does with her eyes. Her duty is not to help her patients but to maintain the status quo. From the beginning, McMurphy's very presence upsets it. You might think that the option to send McMurphy back to prison, would return things to normal and it likely would, but Ratched needs to be sure, as he has already affected the patients. To eliminate his influence she needs to break him in front of the patients.
He's a free spirit, who all but intentionally seeks imprisonment and she is a nurse with no compassion whatsoever. It's the failure on both their parts to be exactly what they should, that ensures tragedy. McMurphy could have escaped but didn't. Nurse Ratched could have had him released to prison but didn't. Each sees everything they hate in the other, and as a result they each break their own rules. We think of McMurphy as the tragedy (and his fate is tragic) but the real tragedy in Billy, the confused kid unable to decide between them. Billy dabbles in McMurphy's world and wants to be like him, but he isn't prepared to be "worked on" like McMurphy is. He doesn't choose to be free when he listens to McMurphy, he's just following a different leader. Billy doesn't make a choice just allows himself to be convinced. He runs away rather than face Candy, and they really do have to drag him into the room with her.
McMurphy's excesses are necessary to break the system, but his presence is only another system. It's not accidental that Chief is the only one who really goes free. Where the other patients emulate McMurphy, Chief finds inspiration. Of all the patients, Chief is the only one that McMurphy talks to as a peer. He's more of a friend than a follower and the only one in the whole movie who understands McMurphy's predicament, as he saw what happened to his own father. Getting free is harder than it looks and Chief only does so by doing what McMurphy couldn't do, which was in his power all along. The Chief never needed McMurphy to escape, he needed McMurphy to remind him that he wanted to, and that he wasn't really deaf and dumb. It could be argued that McMurphy never wanted freedom, he wanted to fight and he'd finally found a represantation of that which made him want to fight. While arranging sex for Billy was on the one hand a kindness, it was also a stab at Nurse Ratched, which is why he falls asleep beneath the window. He wants to see her face, when she knows he messed up her order. McMurphy doesn't have what it takes to be free, only to stir things up, but without him, the Chief would have stayed a deaf mute.
McMurphy was never the solution, but without him we'd never reach it. For him the fight was his reason for being, and fighting wears everyone down eventually. Yes I would say it was necessary and it breaks me up when he gets beaten, but he was always going to lose eventually. It was in his character. To me, Cuckoo's Nest, is about making a choice for yourself, not for McMurphy or Ratched. That's the only freedom. After all, most of the inmates were voluntary. Chief had to leave McMurphy behind to be free, but all the same, it's doubtful he'd ever forget him.