What is it about movie psychopaths? They terrify us, they hold nothing but contempt in their hearts for us, they would slaughter us if we were to meet them on the street, and yet we love them. The posthumous Oscar for Heath Ledger is just the most recent example. There was Hannibal Lecter before him, and Travis Bickle before him … and before him, there was Alex, as played by Malcolm McDowell in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange.
I hadn’t seen the film prior to last week’s Movie Klub, but it has so pervaded our pop culture that I knew what it was about. Alex and his “droogs” run around a futuristic London, assaulting, raping and stealing however they like. Alex is eventually picked up by the police and subjected to a form of brainwashing designed to remove his violent tendencies. Yet the actual watching of the film was a new, even shocking experience for me. There are few reviews that you can read which accurately describe what an unsettling experience it is.
This not because the film is especially gory. It isn’t. Silence of the Lambs is far worse; hell, in terms of the amount of fake blood spilled, Jaws is worse. Kubrick, great master that he was, understood that the true horror of movie violence is simply to show something that no person wants to see happen, and hold the camera there for far longer than would make anyone comfortable. There is the famous rape scene during which Alex belts out “Singin’ in the Rain,” of course, but even the shorter, less graphic beating of a homeless man at the beginning of the movie is very uncomfortable to watch. It’s also notable that both scenes inspired copycat crimes in Britain, and eventually Kubrick pulled the movie from theaters there.
Those sort of scenes happen again and again. It eventually comes to the point that watching Alex do anything is unnerving, because you’re sure that “a little of the old ultraviolence” is right around the corner. I got the same feeling from Ledger’s performance, which in my mind is more impressive since it’s tougher to be scary in a pulpy, PG-13-rated, genre film. However, McDowell is still doing the best work of his career by about 50 miles, with his overacting and underplaying both coming exactly when they’re called for.
In most movies, “psychopath” is equated with “likes to kill people.” However, reading Dave Cullen’s excellent book Columbine, on the 1999 school shooting in Colorado, opened my eyes to what an actual psychopath is in the eyes of most psychologists. The two boys who perpetrated that crime were not both psychopaths, even though both seemed to enjoy the crime; one was a textbook psychopath, and he had such charisma that the other boy followed his lead without question. That charisma is a telltale sign, as is the ability to lie about anything with utter conviction, and those are both on full display in McDowell’s face. It’s what makes his performance so great: you’re so sure that he’s lying and ready for more violence, yet he has that psychopath charisma to bring you (and the other characters) along with him.
Once Alex undergoes his changes, the film lost me a little bit. The movie starts by portraying a hyper-sexualized culture that has an implied hatred for women in every way – in its art, in the ridiculous codpieces that Alex and his crew are wearing, even in the tables in Alex’s favorite bar. There’s a clear connection between treating a woman as a thing and encouraging someone like Alex, who wants to take and/or break every “thing” that he finds.
That connection is lost while Alex is in prison; although we are told his conditioning removes sexual impulses, it’s more or less irrelevant since there are no significant female roles in the second half of the movie. The film becomes a little muddled morally: I was expecting it to take a position that Alex became a victim of the same culture that produced him, but Kubrick struggles to get to that place. The aforementioned copycat crimes also take a little away from the film, since it seems that real-life Alexes took the movie as a triumph, rather than a criticism.
During the first half of the movie, I felt like I was in the hands of one of cinema’s true grandmasters, my emotions being Kubrick’s to toy with. During the second half of the movie, not so much. But A Clockwork Orange
remains a classic, a film which I almost immediately wanted to see again, because it felt like there was so much more I could have taken away from it.
Reviewed by Mark Young