A Clockwork Orange is one of the most unique films ever produced. Stanley Kubrick’s deformed masterpiece possesses a sickly black humour. It’s horrifying, ebullient, savage, endlessly imaginative, political, philosophical and often disgusting.
At its best it’s funny, evocative and creative. At its worst, it’s indulgent and directionless.
Its chief problem is that Kubrick (working from his own screenplay adapted from the same-named Anthony Burgess novel) appears to be so occupied with being distinct and plunging us into his dystopian world, that the film ceases to have little else on its mind. The escapades of our anti-hero Alex (Malcolm McDowell) and the world that contain them are so unrecognisable, not just in physicality, but in personality and morality, that we feel we can only look in through a window.
This is most apparent in the film’s first hour. Alex is a young, but evil man. He and his “droogs” roam about Kubrick’s near-future, quasi dystopia and indulge the foulest debauchery imaginable. They drink drug laced milk to perk them up, before they step out onto the streets and assault tramps, brutally (to the point of slapstick) brawl with rival gangs, and rape (the old in-out as Alex charmingly refers to it), all in a night’s work. Later, they will also murder and thieve. They move through a world of decor only conceivable in nightmares and speak a trampled, acid afflicted Shakespearean tongue. During the days Alex listens to Beethoven and looks for sex.
What’s in large part so distressing about it all is how jaunty it is. It’s colourful, directed with verve and teeming with zealous music. In perhaps the toughest scene, Alex and his gang gag and bound a couple in their home as Alex croons Singing in the Rain, whirling through a dance routine of destructive precision. This isn’t to detract from how visceral an inundation this world offers. We are whisked into Alex’s heinous mind as these events, which we know are despicable, become warped entertainment. Kubrick offers us one of the most distinctive surfaces. Each visual is entirely original; its tone is wholly wrong-footing yet captivating. The trouble is that it all seems a bit senseless. It’s an interesting, if not terrifying place to be, but why are we here?
It’s not until the film’s second half where this question begins to be answered. Alex is soon outed for his crimes and sent to prison, and it’s here that Kubrick finds ethical grounds to work on. To reduce his sentence Alex volunteers himself for an unknown experimental rehabilitation. He’s tortured; drugged and then forced to watch graphic films of the acts he once cherished. It’s a truly haunting sight, Alex with his eyes clamped open as he burps back vomit. In Pavlovian fashion, he’s conditioned to be sick at the thoughts of violence and sex. His transformation is apparent, but is he reformed? Kubrick here prompts discussion of rehabilitation, of the conflict of free will and conditioning.
Alex is hurled back into society, but through a series of ironic twists it becomes evident that he can never be reintegrated. In a satirical coil, being stripped of his sadism has left Alex the odd one out in a world that hunts him for political leverage and attacks him in ways as savage as he himself ever attacked.
The film grows to be loaded in ethos, but crucially Kubrick doesn’t have the answers. He’s certainly not romanticising Alex, and there’s no apparent alternative as to handle the destructive boy. Kubrick leaves us scratching our head. Is stripping someone of their free will ever justified, even if that will is horrid? Is Alex cured because he no longer has the capacity for violence, or is his new found moral compass rather an illusion? Does it even matter? Alex is victimised through his new defencelessness. It appears his treatment has left him merely vulnerable.
The true genius of Kubrick’s film is as a sheer evocation of mood. It’s disconcerting in every intended way. Malcolm McDowell is entrancing, stealing our sympathies from under our nose when he has no right to, and the film’s “ultra-violence” is blunt and confronting. It’s surprising A Clockwork Orange itself doesn’t appear among the traumatic cinema forced upon Alex. It’s so unlike anything else, so visually unparalleled, so peculiar and oddly charismatic, eliciting a new emotion from us at every turn, however unexpected (you wince at yourself for laughing suddenly), that it never fails to be mesmerising. If nothing else, it is truly inimitable cinema. At once haunting, and stirringly intelligent.