One thing you have to give Stanley Kubrick credit for: his films are seldom easy to dismiss from one’s thoughts. I’ve seen four of his films now, and arguably the least memorable of them would be The Shining — and that’s one of the greatest horror films ever made, so it should be clear that “least memorable” is not a strong descriptor in this case. Of the other films, both 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dr. Strangelove are very dense films, requiring a lot of thought to process afterward. A Clockwork Orange is no different in that respect. I’ve been digesting this bit of mental gristle for nigh on a year now, and for multiple reasons. The first is that it really does have some thought-provoking concepts behind it. The other is that, despite those concepts and a high degree of technical quality, I can’t say that I enjoyed the experience.
Let me deal with the highlights first. Malcolm McDowell is the star of the film, and virtually the only actor to have more than ten minutes in it. He plays a young man named Alex, in a just-barely-unreal version of near-future Britain. Alex is not what one would call a well man; in fact, he is several shades of criminal, committing murder and rape for the fun of it. He is a carefully constructed depiction of a pure psychopath, and McDowell easily makes the viewer believe that he truly is as deranged and free of conscience as he could be.
This is where the film gets its high concept from. Alex is, inevitably, caught for one of his crimes. As punishment, and an attempt to rehabilitate him, he is subjected to a form of brainwashing that inflicts intolerable mental torment on him should he even think about anything connected to his violent ways… and a few things which aren’t, thanks to a side-effect in the process. Here the film challenges the viewer’s notions of justice; it’s easy to decry torture as inhumane when we’re sympathetic to the victim, but what about when the victim is an unrepentant serial killer rapist? It asks whether the audience can be sympathetic to a monster, or if not — and I doubt I’m alone in the “not” category — whether the audience can hold a society’s actions as wrong, completely divorced from the question of who the victim is. It’s certainly a worthwhile concept to explore.
But at the same time, it’s a difficult concept to explore without pushing things too far. Alex is a sick man in a sick society… and Kubrick’s efforts to show society’s sickness are sufficiently grotesque that the film is hard to watch. It’s not a question of prudishness… or at least, it’s not just that. It’s a question of how far one can go and still be taken seriously. For my part, watching Alex beat a woman to death with a sculpture of a giant phallus flew right over that line. There are a large number of possible emotional responses to such a scene, but I’m reasonably certain that rolling one’s eyes at the ridiculousness of it is not a response that Kubrick was going for, and it’s hardly the only example in the film. I can’t take it seriously. And while it has a few notes of dry wit here and there, it’s nowhere near enough to count as a dark comedy… even if I thought scenes like the one above would work in such, which I’m unconvinced of. It just goes further than it needs to. It stops being grotesque for the sake of showing a morally decayed society and is instead grotesque for the sake of being grotesque.
All of which leaves me in a tough position when it comes to discussing the film. Do I respect the film? In some ways, certainly. McDowell’s acting, Kubrick’s directing, it’s all top-notch. And it absolutely has a worthwhile, thought-provoking premise. But I cannot say I was entertained by the film, or that I liked it. And I can’t say that I would recommend it. Certainly not to people in general, and not without some large caveats even to specific individuals. The people I would recommend this film to are those who appreciate the technical sides of film more than the story, and have a strong stomach for grotesque displays, who are at least a little bit inoculated towards Kubrick’s weirdness from other films, and who just want to see what all the fuss was about. But I think most people could reasonably skip it and never miss it.
Note: This is a “Rewind Review” of a film viewed during the blog’s hiatus. The film was watched on March 16 2014. The review is based on my notes at the time and my thoughts reflecting back on the film without a second viewing.