Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange is a highly disturbing and yet (pardon the pun) eye-opening film. With scenes of rape, ultra-violence, drug abuse, and even torture, it is an exhausting event of a film to watch in one sitting. What makes it impossible to turn off though, is the questions it raises about human morality and behavior.
There is no doubt that Alex is not a good man. At age 17 (15 in the novel), he ignores and manipulates his parents, beats old men in abandoned alleys, and rapes young women whenever he wants a bit of in-and-out. When he finally gets captured by the police and put in jail, you physically feel the taught muscles of your body relax, thinking you will no longer have to witness anymore of Alex’s crimes. That relief doesn’t last long. The “therapy” Alex enrolls in is equally disquieting. The government doctors and psychiatrists cause Alex a great deal of stress, pain, and mental distress.
As Alex dehumanizes others for his own pleasure, he in turn dehumanizes himself. The film is set up so the audience does not think of him as a person, but instead only thinks of him as a soulless, heartless criminal. Why then do we feel sympathy for someone who has lost their humanity? Is it because he still looks human? As the therapy progresses Alex begins to behave with more kindness and warmth towards those in the hospital. Does this mean that the intense, accosting methods are working? Can we only fight fire with fire? If Alex can so easily be conditioned to behave in a civil and decent manner, then was his previous behavior a result of conditioning by society? If human nature can be so easily manipulated and designed, does it exist in the first place?
After Alex’s attempted suicide he tells the doctors in the hospital that he is “cured all right.” What does this mean? The following epilogue scene that depicts him as a loving father with a job and a home may lead us to believe that Alex has been reborn, illustrating that anyone is capable of making the best of a second chance. Maybe Alex just had to realize on his own that his previous actions had consequences for more than just himself. Was he truly cured of his penchant for violence? Or is he just creating a good cover?
Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the film is that it does not answer any of these questions. What’s even more terrifying, is that we cannot definitively answer them ourselves.