Film Advent Calendar: A Clockwork Orange’s paranoid social commentary had the opposite effect to what was desired

  • Masterful direction makes us sympathise with a reprehensible character
  • Music sets the cartoonish, uncanny valley tone of the film
  • December 20th on NQ editor Matt Hartless's advent calendar of films you should watch this Christmas

A Clockwork Orange was and still is one of the most controversial films ever released.

One of the main impacts the film had, much to Kubrick’s horror, was that it inspired a number of copycat crimes. That’s not to say A Clockwork Orange made people go out and commit these crimes, but gave an idea to people who were already disturbed.

Scene from a Clockwork Orange
Malcolm McDowell in a Clockwork Orange. Credit: Warner Bros

A Clockwork Orange is a 1971 social commentary psychological horror film directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Malcolm McDowell.

The film tells the story of Alex DeLarge (McDowell), a 17-year-old psychopath who commits numerous crimes with his gang before being betrayed by them and captured. He submits to an experimental treatment, supposedly curing him of his violent urges, but removing his free will.

The film’s central question is whether it is better to do bad with free will, or to have no agency in your destiny.

A Clockwork Orange is quite neatly split into two halves. In the first half, Alex, unchained from society, spends his days indulging his desire for ultra-violence. He and his gang fight other gangs, beat up a tramp and rape a woman in front of her helpless husband.

The second half sees Alex, having been released from prison after undergoing the treatment, trying to readjust to the outside world but being unable to defend himself when his past crimes come back to haunt him.

Despite being utterly ruthless and horrible, the audience cannot help but sympathise with Alex. He is a compelling character, but also portrayed as more human than the rest of the cast. Kubrick usually frames Alex in the centre, using a wide-angle lense so that people around him are slightly distorted or out of focus. He is shown to be intelligent and appreciative of art and his ultra-violence is escapism for the audience.

Scene from a Clockwork Orange
Alex asserts his authority in a Clockwork Orange. Credit: Warner Bros

The other characters and the sets are made to be quite cartoonish to distance the film from reality. The music is probably the most integral part of the film however. Alex’s love for Beethoven is meant to show his love of art, but the electronic classical music soundscapes made throughout give the film a comical, yet creepy edge. We don’t understand or know this world; we can only experience it through Alex telling us about it.

It’s a tragedy, therefore, that so many people did not understand the film and thought it was advocating violence or damning those trying to supress it. It was merely painting a world in which society values different things and so people become more violent when escaping it.

So, if you want a compelling character study, even if it is unforgivingly dark, from one of the true masters of cinema, A Clockwork Orange is definitely a film you should watch this Christmas.

This article is part of the Film Advent Calendar series, where NQ editor Matt Hartless shares some of his favourite films in 24 different genres that you should watch if you need something to fill your time over the Christmas break.

Scene from a Clockwork Orange
Alex and his droogs beat up a tramp. Credit: Warner Bros