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7 of the most controversial movies you can stream today

They were protested in theaters, but now have a quiet life of on-demand availability

Matt Dillon, in a blood-red hooded robe, and Bruno Ganz, in a black suit, stand atop a boat as naked figures flail in the water below them, in a fantasy sequence mirroring classical Renaissance paintings. Photo: IFC Films

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If you missed out on Craig Zobel’s deliberately provocative thriller The Hunt, which opened in theaters just as multiplexes and independent arthouse chains began shuttering, you’re in something like luck: Blumhouse put the film out on VOD as a stopgap measure, to reach an audience at home and under quarantine. It’s amusing and a little ironic, given that Universal pulled the movie from its original September 2019 release date out of respect for the one-two tragedy of the Dayton and El Paso mass shootings, and out of fear of backlash after Donald Trump attacked the movie on Twitter. For a while, it looked like The Hunt had no future.

But now, like so many other movies that were controversial when they first came out, it’s widely and easily available for streaming, without any associated protest or resistance. Part of that is the inevitable process of time — yesterday’s content crisis is long forgotten because there are new outrages to navigate. But part of it is just the quiet self-selection of streaming movies. No one can tell if you’re at home on your own, watching movies that were picketed in theaters, booed at festivals, or pulled out of wide release because of the backlash.

The Hunt is one such case — briefly the center of a firestorm, now all but forgotten, and easily accessible. And it’s neither the most fascinating controversial movie worth streaming, nor the most controversial. If you’re craving outcry and offense in cinema — or at least to see what’s been considered provocative and too hot for theaters in different eras — the films below are readily accessible.


The Last Temptation of Christ

A close-up of Willem Dafoe as Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ, wearing a crown of thorns and with blood dripping from his forehead and nose. Photo: Universal Pictures

Once upon the late 1980s, Martin “Gangster Movies” Scorsese made one of his many enduring masterworks, The Last Temptation of Christ, and was rewarded for his efforts with death threats, accusations of blasphemy, and in 1988, a terrorist attack on a theater in Paris, which was set on fire by Catholic integralists while people sat inside and watched the film on screen. Scorsese weathered the storm as only a guy who has spent his life wrestling with his Catholic identity through filmmaking could, which is why MCU partisans coming after him for his comments on “cinema” were little more than a blip on his radar.

The Last Temptation of Christ is just one of many movies about Jesus that’s ruffled Christian feathers — see also Monty Python’s comedy Life of Brian, similarly decried as blasphemous, and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, which apart from being gorier than the average splatter film, also happens to be assertively anti-Semitic. Last Temptation remains the best of the ruckus-stirring Jesus films, which is why today it’s talked about with reverence instead of revulsion.

The Last Temptation of Christ is streaming on Netflix. The Passion of the Christ is on Amazon Prime. Life of Brian is on both Netflix and Amazon.


The Woman

A man in khaki pants and a khaki shirt feeds soup out of a bowl to a long-haired woman bound spread-eagled against a set of filthy shelves in his basement in The Woman. Photo: Bloody Disgusting

If you know the work of horror provocateur Lucky McKee, you know his film The Woman, about a suburban family capturing, torturing, and raping a feral woman. And if you know The Woman, you probably remember the stir it caused at its Sundance premiere in 2011. “It’s not art,” caterwauls one viewer, removed from the theater by security after causing a ruckus at the film’s screening. McKee may or may not have intended for his barbaric film to get most of its publicity from outrage, but either way, he probably didn’t expect people would forget The Woman as quickly and thoroughly as they have. Pollyanna McIntosh, who played The Woman herself, released a 2019 sequel, Darlin’, that came and went without rousing a peep. Granted, Darlin’ wasn’t a Sundance enfant terrible. But grant also that The Woman wasn’t worth the fuss.

The Woman is streaming on PopcornFlix.


A Clockwork Orange

Malcolm McDowell is seen in closeup with a metal apparatus strapped to his head and his eyes held open with clamps as a doctor drips fluid into his eyes in A Clockwork Orange. Photo: Warner Bros.

Stanley Kubrick’s ultra-violent dystopian exploration of behaviorism and morality got a “C” rating from the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures; depending on who you ask, this may be more of an endorsement than a warning. In Britain, the film had a worse reception, being blamed in courts and the press for inspiring real-life crimes. But A Clockwork Orange still enjoys its place on the American Film Institute’s top 100, in spite of its reputation, or maybe because of it. That rep persists to this day — even in 2020, the film is still a subject of scrutiny, for better or worse.

A Clockwork Orange is rentable on Amazon.


Cruising

Al Pacino, in jeans and a black sleeveless T-shirt, dances in a crowd of men at a gay bar in Cruising. Photo: United Artists

When William Friedkin announced his intention of adapting Cruising, a 1970 pulp novel by New York Times reporter Gerald Walker, activists in New York’s gay community rebelled. Friedkin had already drawn fire for his depiction of gay men in his 1980 film adaptation of Mart Crowley’s play The Boys in the Band, and Cruising’s salacious content — about a serial killer targeting gay men in New York City’s leather subculture — didn’t inspire confidence. As Friedkin and his team attempted to film the movie, NYC’s gay community protested in force. At the urging of Village Voice reporter Arthur Bell, folks tried sabotaging the production by pointing mirrors at the set from East Village rooftops; they blew whistles and air horns on the ground within shouting distance of filming; they figured out which apartments Friedkin planned on using and blared stereos in surrounding rooms. Their efforts didn’t keep Cruising from being finished, but it did hit a brick wall critically and commercially, so there’s that. (Appropriately, The Village Voice was ultimately responsible for the film’s latter-day re-evaluation, too.)

Cruising is streaming on Vudu.


Swiss Army Man

Daniel Radcliffe, wearing cardboard armor and being puppeted through a set made of trash gathered to represent people on a bus, plays a living corpse in Swiss Army Man. Photo: A24

The debut feature film from prolific creative team Daniels was another Sundance movie that had audiences stomping out of theaters. Maybe it was the high altitude, or maybe Sundance audiences just weren’t open to appreciating Swiss Army Man’s windy genius as a movie wrapped around a fart joke and as a metaphor for vulnerability. “If my best friend hides his farts from me, then what else is he hiding from me, and why does that make me feel so alone?” asks Manny, the turgid, flatulent corpse played by The Boy Who Lived, Daniel Radcliffe. Somehow, Manny’s universal existential angst went over the heads of Sundance’s sophisticated crowds. They missed out: Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s ode to friendship is as close to cult-classic status today as it can be, given that it only came out five years ago.

Swiss Army Man is streaming on both Netflix and Amazon.


mother!

Jennifer Lawrence stands in front of an octagonal window and looks worried in Mother! Photo: Paramount Pictures

Darren Aronofsky’s mother! goes so far off the deep end in its final act, where Javier Bardem’s nameless poet and Jennifer Lawrence’s equally nameless wife are besieged in their home by leagues of his adoring but surprisingly bloodthirsty fans, that protesting it feels like a bluff. In order to protest a film, you need to understand it, and understanding mother!’s complicated, conflicting symbolism is a tall order. But baby cannibalism and obvious Biblical overtones were both enough to send the movie’s audiences into a froth, and a handful of its critics into conniptions. The backlash prompted Paramount to put out a statement explaining why they even bothered releasing mother! at all , which feels like a far worse fate for Aronofsky’s work than an “F” CinemaScore grade.

mother! is streaming on Vudu.


The House that Jack Built

Matt Fillon, in a suit and plastic raincoat, drags a plastic-wrapped, blood-soaked corpse through a dirty basement space in The House that Jack Built. Photo: IFC Films

Picturing audiences fainting by the Riviera is slightly easier than picturing them fainting outside of Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre, so maybe the reaction Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built met at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival should’ve been expected. Von Trier doesn’t make safe movies. He makes deeply unpleasant movies, designed to shock and appall audiences even at their most meaningful. The House That Jack Built, as a portrait of a serial killer, is unsafe by its very nature. Combine that with von Trier’s graphic, intimate aesthetic, and the film was bound to be upsetting at absolute best. But the finger-wagging, tut-tutting, and outrage in response to the graphic sexual violence in The House That Jack Built came and went, and so did the film itself, which opened theatrically in December 2018 without causing so much as a tremor in year-end discourse. Maybe the folks who missed it at Cannes decided to skip out on it after hearing the details. Or maybe soulless brutality posing as art just isn’t all that interesting. In fact, that’s a lesson a lot of filmmakers courting controversy — and finding it, at least in the short term — could stand to learn.

The House That Jack Built is streaming on Amazon through Showtime.


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