Stanley Kubrick’s explicit and darkly ironic examination of delinquency and its socio-cultural consequences, A Clockwork Orange, dissects the nature of violence within a familiar, near-future metropolis, albeit with satirical verve.
It is a dazzling work of raddled genius, an urban excerpt in which the dystopian nightmare is disturbingly submersible; as a viewer, you are completely immersed within its stark backdrop, its offbeat characters and their idiosyncrasies, impelled to watch even if what you are watching is not particularly pleasant. Classical music-loving proto-punk Alex and his "Droogs" spend their nights getting high on spiked milk before embarking on "a little of the old ultraviolence," such as terrorizing a writer, Mr. Alexander, and gang raping his wife (who later dies as a result). After Alex is jailed for bludgeoning the Cat Lady to death with one of her phallic sculptures, he submits to the Ludovico behavior modification technique to earn his freedom; he's conditioned to abhor violence through watching gory movies, and even his adored Beethoven is turned against him. Returned to the world defenseless, Alex becomes the victim of his prior victims, with Mr. Alexander using Beethoven's Ninth to inflict the greatest pain of all. When society sees what the state has done to Alex, however, the politically expedient move is made.
Alex is the narrator and protagonist of the film, but he is also the villain, which somewhat refreshes the logic of narrative cinema, and as the story unfolds, you as a viewer are won over by his manipulative narration and subconsciously complicit in his acts of crime, terror and sadism. Uncomfortable as it is being placed in the perspective of a sociopathic deliquent, his acts of amusement are visually depicted as violence, but from an amoral point of view, and therefore it is not gratuitous or mindless, it is artistic realism. Both the main sexual violence set pieces are almost hypnotic in their stylistic glory, taking place in lavish country homes with pseudo-sexual décor – perhaps to contrast Alex’s own dilapidated council estate flat – filmed with subversive, balletic ritualism and lit like a fashion shoot.
Kubrick's detached view of the state's economy of violence: how criminal abhorrence is countered with clinical, scientific subjection. Alex's violence is horrific, yet it is an aesthetically calculated fact of his existence; his charisma makes the icily clinical Ludovico treatment seem more negatively abusive than positively therapeutic. Alex may be a sadist, but the state's autocratic control is another violent act, rather than a solution.
It examines its subject with real cost, and in true Kubrick fashion, the story closes in on itself at the last moment and becomes cinematic reverie of the highest order with a visually arresting final series of shots suggestively depicting Alex returning to his old ultraviolent self through his non-repellent fantasies. Casting a coldly pessimistic view on the then-future of the late 1970s, Kubrick and production designer John Barry created a world of high-tech cultural decay, mixing old details like bowler hats with bizarrely alienating "new" environments like the Milkbar. Kubrick explores the central questions of Anthony Burgess' novel, but with his trademark subversive, clinical vision. After aversion therapy, Alex behaves like a good member of society, but not by choice. His goodness is involuntary; he has become the titular clockwork orange — organic on the outside, mechanical on the inside. In the prison, after witnessing the Technique in action on Alex, the chaplain criticizes it as false, arguing that true goodness must come from within. This leads to the theme of abusing liberties — personal, governmental, civil — by Alex, with two conflicting political forces, the Government and the Dissidents, both manipulating Alex for their purely political ends. The story critically portrays the "conservative" and "liberal" parties as equal, for using Alex as a means to their political ends: the writer Mr Alexander wants revenge against Alex and sees him as a means of definitively turning the populace against the incumbent government and its new regime.
In its entirety, A Clockwork Orange is a nightmarishly beautiful fable of a heightened, devoid and broken future that is sadly accurate in its prediction, cementing the film as a sort of savagely bleak premonition of today's totalitarian governments, desensitized youth and prominent gang culture. Upon its release, opinion was divided on the meaning of Kubrick's detached view of this shocking future, but, whether the discord drew the curious or Kubrick's scathing diagnosis spoke to the chaotic cultural moment, and it has become one of Kubrick's most culturally significant masterpieces that hits you in the head with the director's assurance and his typical cynicism, paranoia and visual flair; it is an overwhelming, poignantly prophetic exploration of morality, a social satire of state control, crime and punishment, redemption, and a running lecture on free will that is classic cinema at its most cerebral, influential and socially significant. It is truly unmissable.