The Good: Visual style, Decent acting, Ultimate message
The Bad: Confused sense of purpose, Utterly unlikable characters, Questionable catharsis
The Basics: In a confused jumble of episodes, Alex tells the story of his bored psychosis and the way he was programmed to be better.
Whenever I hear someone complaining about sex and violence in the movies today, I try to remind them of A Clockwork Orange. Sure, today the violence is more gory, the sex is often gratuitous, but it usually has a purpose within whatever story is being told. For example, in a science fiction horror movie where aliens disembowel humans, they usually do it for food or defense. A Clockwork Orange is about a man who thrives on senseless violence. There is no purpose behind his rapes and assaults, it simply is what he does. This is a movie about a thug with no real redeeming character traits or motivations.
Alex tells the story of his bored young adulthood as he wanders around performing violent acts on victims who never see him or his gang of thugs coming. He speaks in a peculiar jargon about everything in his life and he strikes fairly indiscriminately raping and pillaging and even using one of his own gang members who rebels as an object lesson. One night, however, he is captured and he goes to prison where he decides (and succeeds at being) to be the model prisoner. Near the end of his prison experience, he enters a program sponsored by the government to purge him of violent emotions by forcing him to witness atrocities being carried out on others on film.
The best part of A Clockwork Orange is the social message it strives to make. Even criminals, the film argues through the abuses Alex suffers after being "cured," are people who must not be used and toyed with in scientific experiments even for the social good. The needs of the many do not outweigh the soul (or spirit or whatever) of the one. The movie poignantly illustrates how declawing the cat (metaphorically) can lead to a great injustice to the cat. In this case, the problem with social malcontents is that the consequences of their actions extend far beyond their own curing. So even as Alex seeks redemption, his victims and former comrades are not ready to accept nor forgive him.
That reads as very real, especially in today's terrorism-paranoid society in the United States. The truth the movie explores is that society cannot simply absorb its malcontents, even after they reform, without serious effort and adjustment.
The other redeeming factor in A Clockwork Orange is the acting talents of Malcolm McDowell. McDowell is menacing as Alex, perfectly illustrating the casual brutality of the character with his nonchalant acting style. He does not play Alex as over-the-top evil, but rather as a quiet, bored youth who also happens to be psychopathic. It would be too easy to make Alex into a parody, but McDowell works hard to keep the character strangely vibrant. McDowell makes us believe in how a bored jerk like Alex could find purpose in the order of jail and succeed at reforming as completely as he does.
The problems with A Clockwork Orange, though, are impressive. In establishing Alex, the viewer is bombarded with senseless acts of violence and criminal mayhem that are not only difficult to watch, but often boring. There is nothing shocking in the outrageous behavior of Alex now because we see it every day and even seeing it on screen (as opposed to the simplified sound bytes of a television news report) lacks the impact that it must have had when it was released in 1971. But I didn't watch it in 1971, I watched it now and the truth is, I see members of government acting as outrageous now and I am desensitized to this. It's boring.
Visually, what Alex does is different from what is in the movies today. His assaults and preludes to rape are shot with visual style that arguably is a credit to Stanley Kubrick. But to what purpose? We see the violence in a dizzying fray as Alex conducts them. But the way the movie is shot alludes to a passion Alex himself never portrays. He is more bored than actually violent. He is a man without purpose.
And the end, where the government becomes a visible force in Alex's life, makes the argument ridiculously heavy-handed. We know Alex is being abused and it is bad. We understand that without his own defense mechanisms, the government is committing a wrong against him like the ones he previously inflicted on others. We get it with the first example, by the time it is said almost as explicitly on screen, the viewer gets it. We are not, after all, idiots. But if the repetition of purpose is disturbingly insulting in the latter portions of the movie, the final monologue that concludes the film is downright baffling. The non-sequitor leaves the viewer with a "well now, what then?" or "what did I get out of the last 135 minutes?"
There are movies today that are considered masterpieces that few people challenge because they are established as such. A Clockwork Orange is considered by many as a masterpiece that illustrates the dangers of government or society programming its members to be a productive part of an order. There are better films that show the dangers of overbearing society (Brazil) or the effects of senseless violence (Reservoir Dogs). There are better Stanley Kubrick films; even 2001: A Space Odyssey holds up better than this one.
Ultimately, this is movie for people who want to watch an artful statement against government and violence or people who want to study what was considered shocking in 1972.
For other works with Malcolm McDowell, please be sure to check out my reviews of:
Star Trek: Generations
For other film reviews, please be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2004 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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