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Review: A Clockwork Orange (1971)

A Clockwork Orange (1971)

Directed by: Stanley Kubrick

Premise: Set in a dystopian future, Alex (Malcolm McDowell) is a delinquent youth who spends his nights assaulting and murdering people. When he is caught by authorities, the government puts him through an experimental behavior modification program.

What Works: A Clockwork Orange is a truly notorious film. The picture has a lot of external baggage to it related to bans or other censorship and it has a general reputation for being a dangerous film. But that should not distract from the fact that A Clockwork Orange is also a brilliant piece of filmmaking and one of the highpoints of Stanley Kubrick’s career, standing next to Spartacus, Dr. Strangelove, and 2001: A Space Odyssey among the director’s best work. In fact, the very qualities that make A Clockwork Orange objectionable are exactly what makes it special. This film is an intense ride, especially in its first half, and is a bewildering collection of sights and sounds that are crammed together to create an impression of chaos. Some of that chaos is located in the general lawlessness of the main character but there is also a moral chaos about A Clockwork Orange. The film indulges anarchy and amorality in a way that few films have. Although pictures in the horror genre often dramatize this kind of threat to society, they usually have solid and even conservative moral center and in the end the anarchy that is symbolized by the other is destroyed or vanquished. Not so in A Clockwork Orange, in which the lead character gleefully wrecks havoc on the public and the film follows him around without any overt condemnation. This is accomplished primarily by the performance of Malcolm McDowell as Alex. Although he is engaging in horrible and destructive acts, there is a charm and a childlike quality about McDowell’s performance that makes the character fascinating to watch. McDowell is also a source of the film’s humor which aids in making the violence of it bearable and even entertaining. In the second half, as Alex is captured by authorities, A Clockwork Orange becomes even more subversive. Although the chaos of the first half is gone the film is not absent of violence or moral murkiness. Instead, the film parallels the personal violence done by Alex to society with the institutional violence done to Alex by the establishment. And as the film reaches its finale in which Alex and the government officials reconcile, the picture throws up its hands in sardonic glee and tells us that nothing is going to work out the way it was supposed to and takes a final plunge into chaos.

What Doesn’t: A Clockwork Orange is not a film for everyone. Although the picture is forty years old, it remains a punch to the gut at times, especially in the infamous home invasion sequences. It may also have limited appeal due to its filmmaking style. Throughout most of his career, the story and narrative structure of Stanley Kubrick’s films tended to be flimsy. This can be seen in 2001: A Space Odyssey and Full Metal Jacket, which are broken into segments that bear little relation to one another in style or content and each segment has thin plotting. A Clockwork Orange also features this habit of Kubrick’s films. To a degree, this is an outgrowth of Kubrick as a truly cinematic storyteller; he was interested in images or sequences of images and there is an emphasis on the pictorial rather than the verbal or the literary. This narrative and stylistic disparity between the segments of the film actually works in A Clockwork Orange’s favor because it allows the film the flexibility to make the twists and turns required of its satire. But the film’s style also keeps the viewer at a distance. It is not inviting to the viewer in the way that most traditionally narrative films are and that makes A Clockwork Orange more of an intellectual experience than an emotional one.

DVD extras: The two-disc DVD includes a commentary track, documentaries, and a trailer.

Bottom Line: A Clockwork Orange remains an important film and one whose influence can continue to be seen in later pictures like Natural Born Killers and The Dark Knight. But this is also dark comedy at some of its most mordant and viewers should be aware that in the world of A Clockwork Orange the rules of polite cinema do not apply.

Episode: #357 (October 2, 2011)