Love stories typically operate within the same structure: Boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, there’s a complication, and either the complication is resolved and the couple lives happily ever after, or — more rare — it doesn’t get resolved and the couple splits. For all the bondage and nudity in 50 Shades of Grey, it’s not really any different. Only here, the complication isn’t a fear of commitment or a split personality or a long-distance relationship or another woman, it’s BDSM. Christian Grey meets Anastasia Steele, they hit it off and begin to fall in love: There’s just one tiny complication: He needs to whip the shit out of her ass with a belt for the relationship to work.
50 Shades of Grey is not a good movie, but it has nothing to do with BDSM. It doesn’t work because, if you take the BDSM out of it, it’s a listless, boring, unoriginal bedsore of a love story between a mismatched couple played by two actors who have absolutely no chemistry between them.
Yet, there’s every indication that director Sam Taylor-Johnson did everything in her power to transcend E.L. James’ schlocky, terribly-written garbage porn, and there are times, even, when Dakota Johnson brings an occasional flicker of life to film. Johnson, who plays Anastasia Steele, is remarkably good given how little she has to work with, and her and Taylor-Johnson actually manage to make relatively interesting the journey that her character goes on from doormat to emotional dominant.
When Steele first meets Christian Grey, she’s a virgin, a mousy college student, weeks before her graduation. She seems like the perfect target/prey for Christian Grey, a CEO of a telecommunications firm with very specific tastes: He’s not interested in romance, only in extracting pleasure out of submissive fuck toys he can hang from his ceiling and whip before sexually conquering.
Steele, who is immediately smitten and intimidated by Grey, reluctantly enters into a relationship with Grey, only there’s a catch: Grey insists that she sign a contract stipulating that she will be his submissive, and will agree to having certain abusive/pleasurable sex acts inflicted upon her.
The contract is meant to allow Grey to assert command control over Steele, but by not immediately signing it, she’s able to use it as leverage to wrestle control back away from him. In the interim, they continue to fuck, and while Grey owns her sexually, Steele gradually gains the upper hand emotionally.
As much as I am loathe to admit it, that’s actually an interesting psychological premise, and if 50 Shades of Grey were an emotionally complex film about mind games, about leveraging the power of sex, and about what drives BDSM relationships, it could’ve worked. Give that premise to David Fincher (or even David Cronenberg), and it has all the makings of a challenging, psychological mind-fuck.
Instead, Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel are confined by the storyline of an insipid, reductive novel that sold 100 million copies. It’s shit. There’s no layers or subtext. There’s nothing thoughtful going on here. Christian Grey buys Ana lavish gifts, she allows him to fuck her, she pulls away, he buys her another gift, she allows him to fuck her again. There’s nothing buzzing underneath to elevate the relationship, except for a performance from Dakota Johnson that this movie doesn’t deserve.
It is, at times, so glacially paced that I found myself frequently shifting in my seat before realizing that, as the only man sitting by himself in a theater full of large groups of mostly middle-aged women, that restlessness could’ve been mistaken for anxiousness, so add self-consciousness to the pile of uncomfortable feelings 50 Shades of Grey elicits.
As for those sex scenes? You can’t do justice to a real BDSM relationship in a movie meant to be distributed in 3500 theaters across the nation. They are tasteful and sometimes sensual, but mostly airless and sterile. There’s nothing animalistic about them — sex is sloppy and primal and intimate. In 50 Shades, it’s reduced to quick edits: Boob, bush, boob, curling toes, whip, boob, mouth, arching back, hands, boob. It’s like quickly flipping through a glossy magazine with (female) nudity. It’s artistic, but not erotic.
Besides the facile plot and the vapid writing, however, the biggest detriment to 50 Shades is Christian Grey, an inexpressive, animatronic fuck machine with all the charisma of a limp dick. I don’t think that Charlie Hunnam — who was originally cast in the role — is a particularly skilled actor, but he has a personality. I suspected as much when watching him in The Fall, but Jamie Dornan is a brick shithouse with nothing going on up top. He’s like abs and a pair of jeans being operated by remote control. He’s Patrick Bateman with the light turned off inside. Part of that is the role he’s stuck in, but more than that, Jamie Dornan possesses no charm or charisma. There’s no electricity.
Ultimately, 50 Shades of Grey is nothing but wasted potential for a thematically interesting character study buoyed occasionally by Dakota Johnson’s slow, subtle transformation. But given the source material with which Sam Taylor-Johnson had to work, 50 Shades didn’t have a shot in hell. It may advertise itself as fetishistic bondage porn, but it’s really just the missionary position of sex films.