The target audience for Fifty Shades of Grey is women who are somehow both older than 17 and still immature enough that nudity makes them giggle, but it does have much more to offer as a film.
The movie follows Ana Steele (Dakota Johnson), a virginal college student on the edge of graduation. She is sent to interview her commencement speaker Christian Grey (Jamie Dorman) in lieu of her journalist friend (Eloise Mumford), who really ought to have passed the task off on a coworker instead of her roommate. Steele and Grey are immediately attracted to each other and begin a romantic relationship, but tension arises between Grey’s fetishes and constant attempts to morph Steele into an obedient set of girl parts and Steele’s sexual inexperience and desire for a more normal relationship.
As previously discussed, despite the negativity surrounding the book, this movie still had a lot of potential. It’s got a good base story — it’s hyper-focused on two characters who just entered into a relationship and both very much want to be together, but are driven apart by their different stages of romantic and sexual development. Steele has never been in a relationship and wants to work her way slowly into a conventional one, but also wants to be with Grey in the ways he’s used to. Grey has a traumatic upbringing and sexual abuse in his past and doesn’t view himself as capable of having normal relationships, so he sabotages what relationships he does have by insisting on demeaning his partner sexually and controlling her in some very unhealthy ways. This has a fantastic set of internal conflicts within Steele and Grey and tension leading to conflict between them. The book’s execution was laughably poor, but with a film adaptation, a mostly new set of people gets a fresh crack at that aspect.
I really, really wanted to like this movie. I wanted to see it shot such that Grey was an antagonist and what he was doing to Steele was dangerous and unhealthy, and I was looking for that in the framing, and I found it. The opening sequence is set to the tune of Annie Lennox covering “I Put a Spell on You,” a song with lyrics that lend themselves to a controlling theme. It’s intercut between Grey and Steele with sharp attention on Steele’s face but Grey’s being cut off, shot from the back or out of focus, a hallmark of monster movies, which often tease the monster’s face. In several scenes, Grey’s sudden appearance is a functional jump scare, cuing the audience that he is someone to be afraid of. There’s some non-diagetic piano or organ music when Steele first enters Grey’s home, another monster hallmark. Grey’s playroom has some nice satanic red lighting, whereas the rest of his penthouse has neutral grey and white lighting. This is dialed up to 11 in the scene when they’re negotiating the dominant/submissive contract — which includes provisions on what Steele is allowed to eat, drink and wear — in Grey’s office, which is bathed in blood red lighting despite the same color-neutral lighting in earlier scenes. The car that he gives her, after selling her old one without her permission, is also blood red.
It would have been great to see this extended to other gifts and to other scenes, such as the laptop he buys her through which he has constant, instant communication, the hotel room he takes her to while she’s passed-out drunk in which he undresses her and climbs into bed next to her, the clothes that he buys her after said night and the garden in which he berates her for scheduling a trip to see her mother in Georgia and not telling him about it. He then makes one of those sudden appearances in Georgia. Grey exercises a really scary amount of control over Steele, is what I’m saying, and it’s not always an obviously scary thing.
This method plays on another desire of mine, a conceptual horror movie that I’ve wanted to see executed for a long time now — the main character is in obvious, constant peril from the monster or other point of horror, and everyone around her sees it and the lighting is scary and the music is tense and the Hellgate they have in the den is always acting up, but the main character never realizes or acknowledges her dire situation, sort of like a reverse World Gone Mad story. Fifty Shades of Grey partially executes this concept, and that makes me happy because it’s a great story for it.
Both of these things — using lighting to turn it into a monster movie, executing that horror concept — are only done maybe an eighth of the way, unfortunately. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson sort of gets a get out of jail free card here because author E.L. James, who also produces, was reportedly on her like white on rice the entire production. James doesn’t know the first thing about storytelling, and was probably one of the worst meddlesome producers imaginable. I was able to look for and find what I wanted to see, but that doesn’t mean those things made up the majority of the movie or were enough to make up for the poor dialogue and sex scenes, and even if these concepts were fully executed, the movie would still send unjustified negative messages about sex and bondage, when the real problem is the control Grey exerts over Steele.
Despite the media buildup and James’ meddling — she’s the only one her fans trust! — the sex scenes are long, abysmal and snore-inducing. They show a lot of butts, and, you know, whatever. Want to see butts? You’re on the Internet, here you go. On the contrary, they do show a lot of pubic hair, which is kind of a big deal for a mainstream movie. The scenes play out a lot like porn scenes that are trying to be romantic, with fade cuts and soft R&B instead of the porno groove. Despite sadomasochism being a major part of the hype, the scenes mostly feature Grey caressing and occasionally gently tapping Steele with a switch or a flog. Hardcore it is not.
The film is mainly comprised of these not-sexy music videos, and as such it’s not something I can really recommend. I had strong personal desires for this movie but no expectations for them to be fulfilled, so seeing them addressed at all was vindicating and gives me hope that the sequels, which were already green-lit a couple of days ago, will expand on those themes. But viewed as an individual movie without my personal context, it’s flat, slow and the scenes that are supposed to be major payoffs are dull.
Joshua Knopp is a formerly professional film critic, licensed massage therapist and journalism student at the University of North Texas. Jon Stewart can’t leave. He just can’t. I’ve had a change of heart about reader input. It is now welcomed and encouraged. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter when I can be bothered to make one, and shoot questions to reelentropy@.