Note: This is #52 in my 52 Classic Movies in 52 Weeks challenge for 2009. Ding!
A Clockwork Orange features Alex DeLarge (Malcom McDowell), a young thug in a near-future Britain overrun by moral decay and gangs of hyperviolent youths. Alex isn’t exactly a hero (he’s a vicious rapist and a murderer) and he’s not an anti-hero since he’s neither a stand-in for the common man nor possessed of any redeeming qualities whatsoever. Instead, he’s the central figure in a rather stylishly presented thought experiment dealing with free will and the nature of goodness.
When Alex’s misdeeds finally catch up with him thanks to treachery within his own gang, he’s arrested and put in prison. Eventually he volunteers to participate in a radical new program that pairs drug-induced nausea with scenes of horror and violence to condition him against his base nature. By the end of his treatment, Alex can’t even think about violent or sexual acts without being crippled by waves of sickness and pain. Now rendered harmless, he’s dumped back into the world. But unfortunately for Alex, the world is still cruel without him and he is completely defenseless when he comes back into contact with those whom he has wronged in his salad days. And so we’re supposed to ask ourselves: was it wrong for the state to do to Alex what it did? And should they undo it?
I’ve got the same problem with this film that I had with the book by Anthony Burgess upon which it was based (see my review of the book here). That is, the central moral question that it invites us to wrestle with is so trivially easy to resolve in my mind that it makes the entire escapade seem vulgar with little payoff. Of COURSE the state was right to do to Alex what it did –or at least no more wrong than it would have been to lock him up for life. We’re invited to think about whether robbing him of choice makes this one-time villain “good,” but to me that’s an irrelevant question. He’s not hurting people any more (remember, we’re talking pre-meditated rape and murder here). Sure he can’t choose to be good or bad after the psychological conditioning, but neither can any of the people who were locked up or executed. Yes, there’s the question of the slippery slope down from terrible crimes to any sort of irreverent or antisocial behavior, but the movie explores that even less than the book did. Alex’s situation simply isn’t the dilemma to me that director Stanley Kuberick think it to be.
That said, the film was interesting to watch, even if it was a bit slow and talky in a lot of places. Kuberick’s definitely got his own sense of style, with lots of extreme close-ups (often involving eyes), stark scenes, and weird camera angles. Visually, the only thing that I think fell really flat was his 1972 vision of what the future was going to look like. It didn’t age well, and screams of wonky design that’s so far of from what we now expect the near future to look like that it’s visually jarring.