McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) escapes work on a prison farm by feigning mental illness, but he finds himself in a far more coercive institution than the one he left behind. The other men, both sane and insane, are just like him: they hide in the locked ward from the law, their families, or the despair of their own lives.

McMurphy animates the dull monotony with fractious games, pranks, and excursions, but he encounters stiff opposition from the head nurse, Mildred Ratched (Louise Fletcher), whose system provides her with pills and electroshock to maintain control. When the nurse discovers that McMurphy has smuggled two women into the ward, she threatens to tell the mother of young Billy (Brad Dourif). Billy commits suicide and an enraged McMurphy tries to strangle Ratched. McMurphy is lobotomized and returned to the ward only to be smothered by his friend Bromden, who then escapes.


Cuckoo's Nest is a powerful anti-psychiatry film. Ironically, it was made in the aftermath of the decarceration movement when surgical and electroshock therapies were already in decline. Bracketed by the English translations of Michel Foucault's studies of madness and imprisonment, it reflected society's disillusionment with the psychiatric modalities that had enjoyed so much acclaim two decades earlier.

Evocative portrayals of other patients by Danny de Vito, Dourif, Christopher Lloyd, and Will Sampson, who played the willfully mute "Indian Chief Bromden," marked screen debuts for the three last-named actors and an Oscar for Dourif. "Cuckoo's Nest" took the top five Academy Awards and was nominated in four other categories.

The final scene is memorable: big "Chief Bromden," who has just euthanized McMurphy, rips a massive basin from its roots--a feat over which his dead friend had once wagered and lost--hurls it through an enormous window which shatters in slow motion for his powerful escape into the dark fields. When I first saw the film in 1975, the whole audience was on its feet, cheering.


Based on the novel by Ken Kesey and play by Dale Wasserman.

Primary Source

HBO Video Weintraub Entertainment Group