McMurphy bursts into the staid institution from the outside world—he represents freedom, life, joy, and the power of the individual against a repressive establishment. Not totally likable, however, he is something of a rogue, in custody for statutory rape of an underage girl whom he claims was very willing, and he proves to be a literal pirate, commandeering a fishing boat with joyous disregard for the consequences. McMurphy takes risks to feel alive, and he tries to jar the other patients into embracing life as well. His fishing trip is a celebration rather than a serious attempt to escape. When Candy warns him of its potential consequences, McMurphy laughs, unafraid and fully prepared to be recaptured.
McMurphy is wrong, however, that the worst the authorities can do to him is to return him to the institution—and it is a costly mistake. Compounding his error, he wagers that he can get under Nurse Ratched’s skin. But he learns that she controls the length of his sentence and that, in opposing her, he has sacrificed his release. Indeed, sacrifice is one of McMurphy’s functions as a Christ figure in the film. He performs miracles of a sort, as he makes the Chief speak and causes Billy to stop stuttering briefly at the end of the film. McMurphy also hosts a kind of Last Supper party for the men before he says goodbye. In the end, rather than save himself, McMurphy fights the forces of evil in Nurse Ratched and pays for it with his life. Yet his soul is never conquered and at the end is released through the Chief’s love—a triumph of the spirit over repression and death.
If McMurphy serves as a Christ figure, Nurse Ratched is the Antichrist. She represents authority, conformity, bureaucracy, repression, evil, and death. She enters the ward in the morning wearing a black cape reminiscent of a vampire, as if to suck the lifeblood from the patients. She manages to suck out their spirits by medicating them, numbing them with routine, reminding them of their problems, and denying their individual dignity. McMurphy opposes Nurse Ratched’s dark power. When she tries to control him, her methods fail: he willfully spits out her medication and violates the sanctity of her nurse’s station. He ignores her version of reality in the dispute over the World Series and riles her enough to raise, uncharacteristically, her carefully modulated voice.
As the film progresses, McMurphy rallies the patients to rebel against Nurse Ratched’s authority and question the therapeutic value of her rules. In response, and true to her name, she ratchets up the battle between them with increasing viciousness. Hoping to turn the men against McMurphy, she blames him for taking away the patients’ privileges and cigarettes. When that tactic fails, she retaliates with electric shock treatments to deaden his mind and break his spirit. Nurse Ratched fights more furiously after McMurphy’s party when she finds her starched white cap—the symbol of her authority—dirty and trampled on the floor. In desperation over the ward’s defiance and in an attempt to vanquish McMurphy, she shames Billy Bibbit into committing suicide. Having goaded McMurphy to violence, she justifies the surgical removal of the frontal lobes of his brain, which she assumes to be the source not only of his emotions and reasoning but also of his force and power. Yet even after McMurphy is physically subdued, his influence lives on in defiance of Nurse Ratched. The men now play his games, use his deceptions, speak his language, adopt his nicknames, and whisper legends about him. At the end of the film, Nurse Ratched’s insidious control is as damaged as her neck in its brace.
At first, the Chief seems almost a caricature of an old wooden cigar-store Indian, but he grows and changes more than anyone during the course of the film. In the beginning, his defense against Nurse Ratched is complete withdrawal. By pretending to be deaf, he need neither speak nor interact with anyone. Even McMurphy’s antics do not initially pierce the Chief’s protective façade. The first sign of change comes after McMurphy climbs up the Chief’s back and arms in order to escape over the fence. McMurphy’s getaway brings a smile to the Chief’s face, because he sees for the first time that the outside world may be accessible and that rebellion may be an option.
McMurphy’s energy continues to work on the Chief, who begins to reengage with life by responding to events on the ward. In an act Nurse Ratched rightly views as insubordinate, the Chief breaks the tie in favor of McMurphy in the World Series vote. He helps the inmates beat the orderlies in a game of basketball. A further breakthrough toward life and health occurs with the Chief’s first words, spoken to McMurphy to thank him not just for the comfort of a stick of gum but also for the example of his courage. Although McMurphy tells the Chief he is as big as a mountain, the Chief himself believes he is too small, too damaged, to escape. However, the Chief grows into his physical strength under McMurphy’s care, and when McMurphy returns to the ward lobotomized, the Chief decides he is now big enough to escape with McMurphy—this means he has reached sanity. At the end of the film, the Chief goes out into the world much like the biblical Peter, the follower of Jesus who went on to build the Christian church after the death of Jesus.
Although Billy Bibbit longs to be like the heroic McMurphy, he is not strong enough to stand up to Nurse Ratched on his own. Billy entwines his arms and legs when Nurse Ratched questions him, virtually tying himself into knots for her. A shine comes into Nurse Ratched’s eyes as she makes him suffer by reminding him of his weakness and his previous suicide attempts. Billy is so timid and fearful that he stutters his own name when he first meets McMurphy. However, McMurphy’s confidence and strength immediately charm and fascinate Billy, who becomes a devoted disciple. McMurphy tries to get Billy to realize that he should be out in the world, driving a convertible and having fun with girls. Even though Billy is a voluntary patient who can leave the misery of the ward at any time, he tells McMurphy that he is not ready, because he believes he is not strong enough to face the world. McMurphy encourages Billy’s natural longing for girls as a healthy appetite for life. By the time of McMurphy’s farewell party, Billy is sufficiently self-assured to embrace Candy in a romantic dance. When Billy confesses to McMurphy his attraction to Candy, he is confessing a desire to be the healthy, normal young man McMurphy has encouraged him to be.
The next morning, after Nurse Ratched finds him in bed with Candy, Billy speaks for the first time without stuttering. The men applaud not only for his confidence and manhood but also for his effrontery of Nurse Ratched’s control. Using her voice and the threat of his mother to shame Billy back to subservience, Nurse Ratched forces him to cower at her feet, begging for mercy. Rather than continue living under her repressive rule, Billy chooses suicide, relinquishing life, while simultaneously making an independent decision. Billy acts as the catalyst for the final battle between McMurphy and Nurse Ratched, the forces of good and evil in the film.