4 Controversial Films: What Horrifies Movie Critics?

There’s a saying that an expert filmmaker is not a storyteller but a truth-teller. Sometimes, others turn the truth against them in malicious ways.

Feb 27, 2024By Alec Badalian, BA Film History and Production

controversial film movie critics


A truly great film teaches us to observe. The goal is to embed themes and ideas within the entertaining aspects as opposed to explicitly stating them in a blunt fashion. Audiences are often smart enough to understand these intentions as well as make their own sincere conclusions. There have also been heinous instances where certain groups from the public or the establishment decide to malign movies and deem them as controversial films to fit their agendas. Take a look at 4 of these cases.


1. Is Bonnie and Clyde Really a Controversial Film?

Hackman, Beatty, and Dunaway as Buck Barrow, Clyde Barrow, and Bonnie Parker. Source: IMDb


Directed by Arthur Penn, the 1967 Bonnie and Clyde was a landmark film in the dawn of New Hollywood. This era was influenced by international cinema. It embraced the counterculture by breaking cinematic taboos with realistic portrayals of sex and violence rather than coating them in a Hollywood sheen. Bonnie and Clyde was once slandered as a sham for its glamorized depiction of the famous outlaws and their misdeeds, yet its approach is contrary to this. While the former may be true the same cannot be said about the latter as its emphasis is meant to highlight the ugly futility. When people get shot in this film they are not stylishly hit with puffs of smoke but brutally blown into bits. There is nothing romantic or sensational about it.


Bonnie and Clyde glam it up in front of the camera so they can spread their legend. Source: KPBS


Critics such as Bosley Crowther believed the graphic violence veered into glorification, labeling the film an unmitigated farce. In no way is the violence meant to provoke the audience for their sympathy is always with those it is inflicted on except for Bonnie and Clyde. They may be protagonists but are in no way the idols they believe to be. The only romanticization comes from the characters themselves as they infamously pose with their stolen weapons in front of their stolen cars. The film itself is clearly against their reprehensible actions and depicts them matter-of-factly so that audiences do not misconstrue them as fantasy or embellishment. In the words of the timeless Roger Ebert, it is a film that reflects the full range of human life.


A Danish poster for Bonnie and Clyde during its worldwide theatrical run. Source: Posterazzi

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Perhaps Hollywood was not ready for this kind of truth at the time for they had almost always seen things portrayed from the perspectives of heroes in film rather than its villains. Fortunately, however, the audience loved Bonnie and Clyde and made it one of Warner Bros.’s most successful films at the time, which caused a reevaluation among critics. Since then it has become one of the most acclaimed works in American history, ranking 42nd on the AFI Top 100 of all time. Legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa also stated that it was one of his 100 favorite films. While some remain critical of Bonnie and Clyde due to its minor historical inaccuracy, which verges on nitpicky, its commitment to reality is unquestionable.


2. The Punches Taken by A Clockwork Orange 

McDowell’s psychotic DeLarge is taken care of by Sharp’s Minister. Source: Sight and Sound


The controversy over Bonnie and Clyde was brief and mostly confined to Hollywood whereas A Clockwork Orange faced a more expansive backlash. Adapted by the great Stanley Kubrick from Anthony Burgess’ 1962 novel, the story follows a sadistic gang leader who volunteers for a conduct-aversion experiment to reduce his prison sentence. The narrative is a commentary on the symbiosis of juvenile delinquents and their superiors, utilizing sequences of horrific violence to accentuate their differences as well as their similarities. Malcolm McDowell’s Alex DeLarge inflicts terror on his subjects the same way Anthony Sharp’s Minister of the Interior does to his patients.


But as with Bonnie and Clyde, some did not agree with the use, which they claimed to be overuse, of violence in A Clockwork Orange. Pauline Kael, one of the most respected critics of her time, slammed the film as pornographic. She also wrote that its lack of morality made the story entirely useless.  A much more apt word would be disturbing since its prolonged sequences of assault and torture are more keen to create an air of dread rather than arousal.


A news clipping in The Irish Independent in 1972 after the banning of A Clockwork Orange. Source: Come here to me! Website


In response to its vile content, A Clockwork Orange was initially rated X in the United States until Kubrick cut out 30 seconds of footage to achieve an R. Meanwhile around the world, the film was either censored or banned by every country, with particular emphasis in the United Kingdom where it was litigated as a source of crime. A handful of murder and assault cases involved their perpetrators referencing the material to the authorities and its link was established beyond a reasonable doubt. With pressure mounting, Kubrick decided to withdraw the film from the UK. In the decades that it was outlawed, A Clockwork Orange was illegally screened and copied in the UK and other countries.


In Paul Duncan’s book Stanley Kubrick: The Complete Films, the filmmaker reflected on A Clockwork Orange with great profundity: Art consists of reshaping life, but it does not create life, nor cause life. Furthermore, to attribute powerful suggestive qualities to a film is at odds with the scientifically accepted view that, even after deep hypnosis in a posthypnotic state, people cannot be made to do things which are at odds with their natures. This story is about the perpetual battle between good and evil in society and whether or not goodness has the ability to trounce badness.


3. The Last Temptation of Christ Breathes Tragedy

Willem Dafoe’s Jesus Christ performs miracles in The Last Temptation of Christ. Source: IMDb


Based on the 1955 novel by Nikos Kazantzakis, The Last Temptation of Christ had been a passion project for Martin Scorsese since the early 1970s. It tells the story of Jesus Christ and his struggle with the temptations of lust, melancholy, and doubt as he fights for liberation from the Romans. The film opens with a disclaimer that states This film is not based on the Gospels, but upon the fictional exploration of the eternal spiritual conflict. Scorsese’s work sparked a catastrophic controversy.


The rubble of the Saint Michel cinema after it was attacked by terrorists. Source: Vitrine de l’île d’Arz


The Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church attempted to ban all of Kazantzakis’ work as he believed the writer was against the Godlike person of Jesus Christ. Scorsese however, a Catholic himself, did not see any opposition to the godly nature of Jesus and has defended his case since the day he made the film. Alas, no matter what Scorsese or any holy figure said, extremists would make sure it was their voices that were heard the loudest.


People all over the world protested outside of theaters showing Temptation. Source: The Telegraph


During its international release, an Integralist Catholic group, similar to a monastic order, ignited an incendiary device at a cinema in Paris that was showing the film, severely injuring the theatergoers. Scorsese was also targeted by death threats and monolithic evangelists. He even had to use bodyguards during his public appearances. It is quite ironic how often it is that the groups who claim to combat evil are those who use vicious tactics that cause substantial harm. These unruly delegates likely did not even see the film or read the book yet they made their conclusions despite this.


4. Yes, Barbie Is a Somewhat Controversial Film

The crayon-drawn map of the South China Sea that put Barbie in hot water. Source: NY Post


As a product, Barbie has been criticized since its creation as it promoted an unrealistic and unsustainable image of the female body. This of course did not hurt its popularity since its intended demographic just wanted to play with their favorite toy. Greta Gerwig’s wildly popular adaptation of the Barbie story hit theaters earlier this summer. Barbie has gone on to become Warner Bros.’s most successful film of all time, a truly remarkable accomplishment given the studio’s history. With this, the film has gone on to cause socio-political qualms.


Two weeks before its release, Barbie was banned in Vietnam for its portrayal of the People’s Republic of China’s nine-dash-line (the Philippines were unsuccessful in their attempt). Not only is the map a child-like doodle with no semblance to reality but it is also a mere second-long background gag that is never even mentioned in the dialogue. In a separate yet equally ridiculous situation, Algeria halted screenings of Barbie three weeks into its release on the stance that it promotes homosexuality and other Western deviances.


Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling as Barbie and Ken. Source: Esquire Magazine


Barbie has also become the target of conservative public figures such as Elon Musk who accused it of being some sort of chauvinist/feminist propaganda. These viewers completely missed the film’s statement about how men become foolishly aggressive when their masculinity is slightly challenged. The film does not seem to treat men poorly but treats them the same way men treat women, which needs no explanation as their response to Barbie has been painfully loud.

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By Alec BadalianBA Film History and ProductionAlec is an assistant writer in the film/TV and industry who has worked on various projects at big studios and independent companies alike. He holds a BA in Film History and Production from Woodbury University in Los Angeles, CA. His role at The Collector is just beginning but he hopes to expand the cinematic content on the site. In his spare time, he watches films, discusses films, reads about films and writes about films.