Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of “A Clockwork Orange” remains his most controversial film and probably his most polarizing. That says a lot considering Kubrick has pushed the envelope more than once with his films such as thesexual fantasy of “Eyes Wide Shut”, the end of the world satire “Dr. Strangelove” and nymphet obsession of Nabokov’s “Lolita”. But “A Clockwork Orange” trumps them all in the “raised eyebrow” department. The film is unapologetic in the depiction of its main character Alex DeLarge, a sexual deviant who throughout the film commits ruthless acts of violence, rape, and murder. Alex feels no remorse for his actions, that is until he is “cured” by the government.
The audacity of having the audience sympathize with such a deplorable main character is a clever conceit of the narrative to get to the film’s real idea: is it morally ethical to rid someone like Alex from his right to choose, or is it better to dehumanize him from that right in order for him to exist in society? This question has become probably more prevalent today when you consider Alex’s violent actions in the film, are aimed mostly towards women.
Let’s take the first ten minutes of the film where we see Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and his fellow Droogs hanging around in that iconic milk bar. We have the famous moment of McDowell giving the signature Kubrick face of the downward head looking up into the camera. From there, the reverse dolly shot reveals the highly sexualized ambiance of the room with naked statues of women in various positions. Here Alex and his Droogs contemplate what sort of “ultraviolence” they will partake in tonight. This leads them assaulting and beating a homeless man to a pulp. Afterwhich, the gang force themselves into the home of a writer and his wife, as we watch them gleefully abuse the two of them while it is juxtaposed to Alex casually singing “Singin in the Rain”. The scene ends, with the Droogs cutting up the wife’s clothing exposing her privates and while the film cuts away, it’s pretty obvious that she is raped. I have to say the first time I attempted watching “A Clockwork Orange” as a teenager, I turned the movie off after this moment, I had not been so upset from a single scene in a film more than this before.
Later, we see Alex assaulting another women in her home, and even though she does put up a fight, she is killed when Alex smashes a giant phallic statue in her face, an image which perhaps has more implications today than it did in 1971. Alex is soon apprehended after this incident, but after spending time in jail, he is recruited for a new type of experiment which guarantees him early release. He is submitted to a medication and brainwashing treatment. In perhaps the film’s most notorious scene, we see Alex in a straight jacket, as his eyelids are clamped open as he watches disturbing images of violence on a film screen. The experiment strips Alex of his free will as he becomes sick from the idea of inflicting any type of violence again.
Alex tries to re-associate himself with his new found freedom, but he no longer feels free, as he must resist his initial impulses. He is less a human being, but more like a human lab rat who has been intellectually castrated. To add to this, Alex can no longer even enjoy his one cultural vice which was the music of Ludwig Van Beethoven, as it was playing in one of the films he watched as he was being conditioned.
This is a clever twist, Kubrick lays on the audience. After giving us so many disturbing images of Alex’s early exploits, he turns the table on us. By stripping him from what makes us all human, our right to choose, we now find empathizing with him. Alex is seen as an outcast, and shunned by his family and even fellow Droogs, he no longer fits anywhere. But here’s the rub, (Spoler Alert) Alex is cured by the end of the movie, he’s able to go back to his old impulses, and he’s even sponsored by the government after they rectify their mistake by making him a PR poster boy. The finale of the film lands in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” message, which nulifys the more philosophical question the film raised. Granted, any film that poses questions such as these makes it more difficult to land a perfect ending. Here Kubrick doesn’t go for ambiguity as he did with his previous movie, “2001”, but he makes it more puck rock and nihilistic with a message that seems to be, every human being is no damn good anyway.
When “A Clockwork Orange” was first released in 1971, it was blamed for inciting violence in the streets of London, causing Kubrick to actually pull it from theatres in England, and banning it for over 30 years until his death. This was a startling act from Kubrick, perhaps even he thought he went too far with it. Despite the controversy, the film was still a big success and can be seen as a classic. It continues to shock and provoke in ways Kubrick wanted us to engage with it. However the moral ambiguity of the film is a bit problematic.
Our movie climate has changed drastically the almost 50 years “A Clockwork Orange” came out. The #Metoo movement has been a watershed moment in Hollywood where women are shouting “No more”. It’s difficult to imagine the Alex DeLarge mentality existing in popular films today, despite the satirical take on the character. Perhaps there is too much outrage right now to even have much empathy with him. But a guy like Alex simply won’t go away into the night, even how much we wish he would. Alex is perceived as a symptom of society, and a sickness that doesn’t have an easy answer. Should we condition him the way the film suggests? Or can we deal with him in a way that doesn’t dehumanize him or us? This is probably the secret brilliance behind ” A Clockwork Orange” and Stanley Kubrick as a director. Kubrick is probably the only director who is able to remind us of our humanity by stripping it away from us. “A Clockwork Orange” dares us to value humanity from the perspective of a sociopath. However Alex came to be, he is a part of the human race, for better or for worse.