Stanley Kubrick’s adaption of Anthony Burgess’ celebrated 1962 novel is a visually striking, but uneven film that is ultimately successful because of Malcolm McDowell’s memorable lead performance. The futuristic society we are brought into is utterly captivating, and the synthesized soundtrack also plays a big part in transporting the audience into Kubrick’s world. The movie seems to live and die by Kubrick’s hectic directorial style and, fortunately, the risks that are taken pay off for the majority of the film, but the lead performance is the one thing that is consistently captivating throughout the entire piece.
McDowell plays Alex DeLarge, a teenage psychopath who, along with his other “droogs”, spend the majority of their nights physically and sexually abusing the people in the film's futuristic
society. When he isn’t out with his gang, Alex dedicates his time to the music of Ludwig van Beethoven. His obsession for Beethoven is basically the only thing we learn about him throughout the course of the film. We do not get any background information about why Alex does what he does, but just like Heath Ledger’s Joker, the lack of character background doesn’t diminish the character’s effectiveness. Britain
Kubrick is very particular in this film about not only creating an exhilarating visual experience, but also creating a movie that raises various thematic questions. As the story evolves, we begin to question whether Alex is something more than just a teenage freak. Is this guy simply a victim of his surroundings? The film’s final scenes question whether a corrupt society has the right to demand incorruptible inhabitants. These are certainly questions with no easy answers, but will nevertheless have audiences thinking about them long after the credits roll.
The ultimate thing that holds this film back is really the director’s decision to be overly artistic. If you look at the film as a whole, there is basically only enough story and plot development for about a 90 minute film. But Kubrick’s excessively talkative script does slow down the pace at various points throughout the film, and ultimately extends the running time to well over two hours. There is some merit to his extended dialogue because Burgess’ novel was one about language as much as it was about its themes; however, on screen, there are certain scenes throughout the film that are much longer than they need to be. These drawn-out sequences don’t have enough flow and style to keep us entertained throughout.
However, like I said before, Kubrick was extremely lucky to get this good of a lead performance. It is quite possible that this film could have failed drastically if it didn’t have a lead actor with the skill and confidence of Malcolm McDowell. In fact, many people might be surprised to learn that A Clockwork Orange was Stanley Kubrick’s fastest shot film. Considering the director’s perfectionist tendencies, McDowell must have been right on from the start in order to make this a quick shoot for Kubrick.
I am also stunned at the fact that McDowell did not receive an Oscar nomination for his performance. Taking into account the controversy that surrounds this film, I wouldn’t have been surprised if the entire movie got snubbed as a whole, but bearing in mind that Kubrick received nominations for Picture, Director, and Screenplay, I can’t seem to figure out why the Academy wouldn’t want to recognize McDowell’s work.
All in all, this film is a risk/reward experience. It’s impossible to make a film this controversial without taking substantial risks and Kubrick certainly does not shy away from his subject matter. By attacking this film without holding anything back, the director is sure to turn off a lot of viewers, but for those who have the strength to stick with this movie from start to finish, they will have a remarkably original experience highlighted by a career-defining performance from Malcolm McDowell.