Movies are powerful. They can influence our beliefs, shape our morals, and coerce our behaviours. For this reason, when movies introduce controversial topics, many people scrutinize them as threats to our social fabric. Some controversial films aim only to shock and disgust; others perpetuate outdated, bigoted beliefs, and a few challenge such beliefs. Some do all three.
While debates about the power of film have raged on for decades, they’ve picked up steam since the Motion Picture Production Code loosened in the 1960s and when unrated DVD rentals boomed at the turn of the twenty-first century. Imbued with the power to upend cultural norms, threaten society’s morals, and leave a sour taste in every moviegoer’s mouth, the following are the most controversial movies released for a wide viewer audience since 2000.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Marking the biggest upset in Oscar history, this queer romance film from Taiwanese director Ang Lee sparked controversy after losing Best Picture to Paul Haggis’ ensemble drama, Crash. Decidedly the better feature, many claimed the homophobia that plagued the relationship between cowboys Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) also cost Brokeback Mountain the deserved win with the Academy, whose membership was mostly older, male, and straight.
Since cowboys held a mythic place in the Old West, many refused to believe the flick held an admirable premise, especially in an American culture that didn’t fully accept intimacy between men. Some argued that the Academy wasn’t ready to celebrate a movie that explored gay male sexual orientation in a heartfelt light. In some countries, the immediate cultural fallout was confusion and vitriol, as the film was banned from theatres in the Bahamas, most of the Middle East, and Taiwan—Lee’s homeland.
Church members, including Minneapolis archbishop John Nienstedt, slammed the movie’s positive portrayal of gay male sexual orientation and deemed it “morally offensive.” Meanwhile, veteran film critic Gene Shalit referred to Gyllenhaal’s character as “a sexual predator.” Despite the pushback, Brokeback Mountain has helped grow LGBTQ+ acceptance in media and redefine societal norms on inclusivity.
The Human Centipede (2009)
A cult hit immediately upon release, The Human Centipede—a movie about a murderous surgeon who kidnaps people and stitches them together by digestive tracts to form a centipede—unsurprisingly appalled most viewers. But the controversy didn’t end at its premise. Audiences lambasted the film for glorifying unconventional body horror and gratuitous sadistic acts.
Director Tom Six had to skip the central premise during his pitches to investors to finance his project. Buoyed by posters that assured it was “100 per cent medically accurate,” the film and its sequels heaved the grotesquery and were banned in Germany, Malaysia, Ireland, and the U.K., among other countries.
You Don’t Know Jack (2010)
This made-for-TV biopic tackled one of the most controversial social issues of the 1990s—euthanasia and the rights of the terminally ill to end their lives via assisted suicide. Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who first proposed euthanasia and helped more than 130 patients end their lives, was a concept that few considered compatible with the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm.
Assisted suicide opposers criticized the film for portraying Kevorkian as a “pioneer” and his unjustified beliefs as honourable. Others faulted the film for humanizing and sympathizing with the man who became known as “Dr. Death.” What caused the biggest uproar was the in-depth perspective given to the families of the biographic, who justified euthanasia, without depicting the religious or ethical issues the practice raises.
Perhaps the most famous example of whitewashing in Hollywood, Aloha attracted heavy criticism for casting Emma Stone, a Caucasian actor, to play Allison Ng, a fighter-pilot of Hawaiian-Chinese descent. To further complicate matters, misappropriation of the Hawaiian culture sparked disapproval as it used the lush, diverse island solely as an exotic backdrop while excluding the very people that inhabit it.
Regarding his misguided casting choice, Cameron Crowe, the writer and producer of the film, issued a heart-felt apology on his website. Meanwhile, for an Australian news outlet, Stone reported she has “learned on a macro level about the insane history of whitewashing in Hollywood and how prevalent the problem truly is.” She continued by mentioning that the controversy has ignited an important conversation.
When this psychological horror film directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Jennifer Lawrence premiered at the Venice Film Festival, it instantly became the most controversial movie of 2017. Before mother! even began, people criticized its poster—which features Lawrence’s bruised face—for using violence against women to market the movie. It turns out the poster was only a precursor to the film’s appalling images and messages within.
In mother! religion was the main scapegoat. Aronofsky portrayed an allegoric relationship between a masculinized God and a feminized Earth on the symbolic level, the former as an abusive, sexist husband and the latter, his oppressed, endangered wife. While some praised Aronofsky’s directorial prowess and the film’s underlying allegory of human sabotage and selfishness, others scorned its horrific rendition of the Book of Genesis.
Combining unintentional infanticide with child cannibalism to drive home the movie’s self-destruction themes, the love-it-or-hate-it movie was sure to conjure up controversy. Then, the ending happened, inspiring a visceral reaction among its audience and causing many walkouts.
The House that Jack Built (2018)
Provocateur Lars von Trier is infamous for his deeply unpleasant directional scope and persona. His previous works have been scrutinized for everything from killing a live donkey in Manderlay (2005) to sympathizing with Adolf Hitlerduring his Melancholia (2011) press tour. However, The House that Jack Built—best summarized as a soulless, irksome misogynistic tale—took this one too far.
Viewers watched through their fingers as a prolific serial killer, portrayed by Matt Dillon, performed heartless killings and perceived them as artistic explorations. Aside from the graphic, realistic quality of the killings, the bulk of the controversy stems from von Trier’s portrayal of women. From cutting a woman’s breasts off or forcing a mother to feed her two murdered children, many questioned his grotesque view of women and more than 100 maddened theatregoers walked out at the Cannes Film Festival. The New Yorker film critic Richard Brody accused the movie as being a ploy of von Trier to attract attention. Brody was just one of many viewers who has criticized the film for its normalization of torture porn.
Joaquin Phoenix’s revisionist comic book drama endured harsh scrutiny for presenting an unhinged murderer as its protagonist, irresponsibly creating sympathy for his character. Such threats amplified in October 2019 when Jokertook centre stage and became the highest-grossing R-rated movie ever. While the Joker certainly wasn’t the first disturbing antihero depicted on screen, people feared his violence would encourage copycat crimes among viewers, especially after the 2012 shooting in Aurora, Colorado, where a man killed 12 people and injured another 70 during a screening of The Dark Knight Rises.
In an IGN interview, Phoenix said, “I don’t think it’s the responsibility of a filmmaker to teach the audience morality or the difference between right or wrong.” Responding to criticisms surrounding the film’s glorification violence and mental illness, Warner Bros. donated $1 million to victims of gun violence and acknowledged the importance of storytelling to provoke difficult conversations about mental health and stigma.
The controversy of Midsommar surrounded its disregard for Swedish culture, twisting “Midsommar” traditions into something horrific for American viewers. Like most controversial films, the scandal was divided. Many people felt the movie would hinder tourism, while others believed horror films didn’t have the power to separate fact from fiction or transform a family-friendly festival into a cultist ritual.
When asked to describe Midsommar, Ari Aster jokingly called it the “Wizard of Oz for perverts.” For some American viewers, the movie was no joke. The director used Sweden’s picturesque backdrop to contrast the sadistic killings of the Midsummer sacrifice. However, it was these absurd traditions that caused many American viewers, in particular, to question the essence of the festival. The Scandinavian country has since been unfairly linked to human sacrifice, spawning countless articles that dispel such notions.