Classic Review: A Clockwork Orange

By contributor Patrick Zabriskie

Stars: ★★★★

Summary: Cruel, vulgar, prophetic, ugly, and yet strangely beautiful at the same time.

Review: A Clockwork Orange was Stanley Kubrick’s follow up to ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, and it is every bit that film’s antithesis. ‘2001’ was fantastic and altruistic; ‘Clockwork’ is gritty and bleak. ‘2001’ shows the human race’s potential, ‘Clockwork’ shows its reality. It’s a study of the ever present savagery and barbarism in our world; a strange, sad film, lacking in any obvious optimism. Thanks to Kubrick’s master craft, though, it’s also one of the best films of its time.

The movie takes place in a totalitarian England. Sort of totalitarian at least. That facet of the narrative isn’t really developed until the last act, but it’s worth mentioning. Anyways, though, this is a despotic world of “ultra-violence”: savage gangs of young men roam the streets at night, beating, robbing, and raping. One of the leaders of these gangs is Alex (Malcolm McDowell), the most twisted and despicable of them all. Long before Heath Ledger’s Joker terrorized for the sake of terror, Alex was causing his own self-satisfying chaos. He shows no remorse; laughing as he maims the defenseless, singing as he rapes women, and grinning malevolently as he even abuses his own gang members (“droogs” as they are called in the film). He’s truly an awful, awful human being. And yet, there’s this other side to him.

You see, Alex loves Beethoven. He absolutely adores his music, particularly Beethoven’s 9th symphony (the music of which is used for much of the film’s score) and listens to it frequently. In general, he also has a great appreciation for art. That and he’s a gifted speaker. His voiceover narrations throughout the film are given in Nasdat, an unorthodox English-dialect that is surprisingly eloquent, even as it describes his vulgar pass times. In Alex is a strange paradox: For as absolutely savage as he is, he seems equally cultured.

Eventually the law catches up to Alex and he is sent to prison, where he volunteers for an experimental new treatment for rehabilitating prisoners, a treatment that will cut his sentence short considerably. This turns out very disturbing, as Alex is conditioned to become painfully ill at even the thought of committing violence to others. As an unexpected side effect, he also becomes painfully ill whenever he hears Beethoven’s 9th. As the price of losing his savagery, he has also lost much of his culture. He returns to face a world that’s as cruel as he used to be, only now he cannot defend himself due to his treatment. In a bizarre twist, we find ourselves pitying him as he becomes the victim in life.

At its core, this film is a parable on choice. As a priest directly points out in the film, Alex has been denied free will through his treatment. He is compelled to do good only to avoid pain, not because he sees the evil inherent in his old ways. It’s left him weak and vulnerable and has cost him his humanity. He’s also lost his precious Beethoven in the process, and he no longer speaks in Nasdat as often. Taking away his choice has, in effect, killed the beauty along with the beast.

Kubrick’s message is clear: Those who are incapable of doing real evil are also incapable of doing real good. Free will ultimately means that there will always be evil in this world. It’s sad but it’s true. So long as free will exists there will be war and poverty and violence and rape starvation. But without free will, there is also no beauty, no love, no sacrifice, no charity, and most importantly, no hope. In short, there is no good. Alex’s old life was hateful and ugly, but his new one is something much worse, it is hopeless and despairing. So too are we without free choice.

Lightning struck many times for Stanley Kubrick, but I don’t think it ever did so quite as enigmatically as it did for this film. It’s a wonderfully stylistic picture with a very powerful message, and for this reason it rivals ‘2001’ as his most prolific work. However, this film isn’t for everyone. It’s practically saturated with violence and nudity. It has to be. But for that reason this isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s mature subject matter for mature minds. For those who can handle the intensity, it’s a riveting and stimulating picture that offers a bold message to the viewer. It’s one of the best films Kubrick ever made, and in my opinion, one of the best films of all time. If you think you can handle it, it’s worth your time.

One thought on “Classic Review: A Clockwork Orange

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