Credit Stanley Kubrick for making films with no mind to what anyone else in Hollywood was doing at the time. He was experimental, yet somehow still mainstream. Likely due to the success of his earlier, more accessible movies like Spartacus, Dr. Strangelove, and eventually the groundbreaking 2001: A Space Odyssey. After a string of successes, he was able to have full creative control over his films, thus controversial and more absurd endeavors, like A Clockwork Orange, were able to get a more mainstream audience.
Alex DeLarge (Malcolm McDowell) is the leader of a hedonistic gang who invades homes at night, raping, beating up, and robbing its occupants, masking themselves so no one can see their identities. One night, an invasion goes “wrong” and Alex ends up accidentally murdering a lady, landing him in prison after his cohorts abandon him at the crime scene. Oh yeah, Alex is also obsessed with Beethoven.
Alex is a sadist, enthralled with the “ultra-violent” as a means to entertain himself. He has no conscience about his actions, and no regret. As scathing a person he is, Alex is actually charismatic–as many psychopaths are–and in jail he learns how to play the game, getting on the good side of several people inside. To them, he’s a man who’s learning his lesson, but to the audience we can see through his patronization.
Two years into his sentence, he’s offered the opportunity to participate in an experimental rehabilitation program as a means to clean up violent prisoners and ensure they don’t commit crimes anymore. He’s sent to a hospital where doctors give him a drug to make him sick while strapping him to a chair, prying open his eyes, and showing him videos of violent acts. After two weeks of this treatment he’s released back into the world. Now, every time he feels the urge to do something violent or sexual, he’s greeted with a paralyzing sickness.
The first act of the movie is rough. Not only because it showcases Alex’s hedonistic ways as the sole perspective, but because the storytelling tries to depict his love for the ultra-violence by merely showing us examples–many of which don’t have any bearing on the overall plot. Combining this with a dated pacing, we remain hopeful that an iconic film like this will pick up at some point. Luckily the narrative smooths out about an hour in once Alex goes to prison for his behavior.
Despite its wretched main character, A Clockwork Orange doesn’t promote the behavior portrayed on screen. But that may also be its downfall. There’s no character to lean on. No one to look at to ground the story. After Alex is cured, we truly see an entirely new character portrayed by McDowell. He’s likable, vulnerable, and scared. A necessary step in rounding out his character and making us empathize with him–even if we know it’s hollow and he never changed by his own will. The one thing keeping us from truly understanding Alex is his inability to develop a relationship with any other character whatsoever. However, that may not be the point.
McDowell encompasses the entire film, as though nobody else really exists the entire time. He does an amazing job perfecting the goofy, charismatic, and truly despicable character.
The trick to appreciating A Clockwork Orange is to not see Alex as the protagonist. He’s simply a means to help tell the story. The protagonist here is free will.
Technically, Kubrick’s outdone himself again. The dreamlike sets are enhanced by a synth score by Wendy Carlos that’s ahead of its time in 1971. We’re intrigued because we never know where the story is going, which keeps us on our toes–another thing the filmmaker is a master at doing.
A Clockwork Orange is interesting because it portrays extremes of both liberal and conservative as bad. Kubrick has a very nihilistic view of the world, but where does nihilism end and hedonism begin? The film speaks to the concept of free will. Is Alex a changed man if he has no choice but to change? The rejection of violence due to his sicknesses still keeps him motivated by the same self-interest that compelled him to commit the crimes to begin with. Is empty change really change? And is it really worth it? This film is thought provoking, even if sometimes we’re unsure what thoughts are supposed to be provoked. But upon further analysis, we end up liking it even more.