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.