A Clockwork Orange Review


It’s hard to watch a film set in the future, especially a dystopian one, and not compare it to A Clockwork Orange, the brutal 1971 movie directed by Stanley Kubrick. That’s because it’s a stunningly directed film, and the world captured by Kubrick is among the most frightening in movie history. It’s a place where violence is inescapable and good people must go into hiding to survive. We’re guided through this place by Alex (Malcolm McDowell), one of Kubrick’s most fascinating but despicable characters, and though it’s hard to relate to him, his arc is dynamic and classic Kubrick. Overall, this is a jaw dropper from beginning to end and easily one of the most unsettling films ever made.

As unfathomable as this world seems, we’re told early on that it isn’t too far into the future. Law and order has essentially collapsed in Britain, giving rise to small groups of ultraviolent youths who steal, fight, rape, and sometimes kill. The aforementioned Alex is a leader of one gang. He has three faithful followers, but the seeds of trouble are sown after he viciously lashes out at them with the intent of keeping them fearful of him. One evening, they break into a rural health club where a woman is alone (excepting her dozen or so cats). Alex taunts her and, ultimately, kills her inadvertently (with a large sculpture of a penis), and while fleeing the scene, his gang turns on him, leaving him at the mercy of the justice system.

He’s sentenced to 14 years and serves two before volunteering for a new experimental treatment designed to twist a criminal’s nature into something society can accept and embrace. Alex is brainwashed into finding violence and sex (literally) nauseating—a great success! But assimilating back into a society that’s filled with awful things isn’t easy for a “good” person like the new Alex.

A Clockwork Orange‘s two distinct halves depict Alex’s transformation unflinchingly. For 45 minutes, he’s a scoundrel of the first order—someone who finds glee in raping a stranger in front of her bound husband. As tough as it is to watch, Kubrick does it satirically, which helps take some of the gravity of the situation away. Then, the oppressor becomes the oppressed. This is where A Clockwork Orange gets its teeth. It’s one thing to watch a sick young person run rampant over a small community; It’s another entirely to realize he’s hardly the worst thing about the world he lives in. He’s simply a product of his environment, and that’s one chilling thought.

To backtrack a little, I can’t emphasize enough how much A Clockwork Orange benefits from the humor Kubrick injects into these twisted proceedings. Full disclosure: I needed to turn this film off the first time I tried to watch it (years ago). Unless you’re able to separate yourself from the film emotionally, you’ll likely be repulsed. Going in a second time, I was shocked at how bitingly funny everything is. Very little about Alex, or his situation, is taken very seriously by Kubrick (who’s penning his first solo screenplay with A Clockwork Orange). It’s not the same sense of humor on display in Dr. Strangelove, but it’s just as effective.

Malcolm McDowell is an absolute maniac as Alex. He’s front and center throughout the entire film, and his zany energy never lags. He wears his emotions on his sleeve at all times, which means he’s usually either viciously angry or frighteningly depressed. By the film’s conclusion, you’ll almost pity him, despite never losing that initial repulsion. Complicated as our emotions toward him are, they’re quite unusual, and McDowell is as much to thank for that as Kubrick is.

A Clockwork Orange is full of some of Kubrick’s most memorable scenes and frames. Along with 2001 and The Shining, it’s one of the director’s most visually expressive motion pictures. From the way he films the murder scene to the famous opening shots at the milk bar, this film will, if nothing else, impress you on a craft level. The emotional reaction is another story. Don’t kill the messenger if you can’t stomach A Clockwork Orange. Just know going in that it’s not the easiest pill to swallow, and hopefully, you’ll make it out OK.

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