Last night I went to see Fifty Shades Freed, the third and mercifully final entry in the film series based on the novels of EL James. It was an unusual experience. Obviously, being a forty-something man wearing sweatpants and a hoodie while smelling of tacos and whiskey, going to see that particular movie myself at 10:00 PM on opening night was … awkward. I experienced a lot of feelings, most of them predictable — discomfort, embarrassment, maybe even a little shame. It’s not a good movie, and I was prepared to sit down this morning and write about how it’s not a good movie. But then, something happened to me overnight. Something that had been percolating since the opening scenes of the movie. All of that discomfort and embarrassment and shame was swept aside by something else.
Fifty Shades Freed made me furious. It took a while for it to all gel together, but now that I’ve had a few hours, it’s crystal clear, an anger so white-hot and pure that it warms me on this cold New England morning. Because Fifty Shades Freed is worse than just a shitty movie about white people fucking with a limp attempt at incorporating BDSM and a stupid plotline about revenge and redemption. No, it’s insulting to every single relationship on this planet. It’s not just that it’s badly made, badly acted, horrifically written and lazily directed. It’s that it’s actively bad for people. It’s a blight on humanity.
The story, such as it is, picks up just as Edward and Bella … sorry, Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and his new wife Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) (Jesus, really with these names?) have tied the knot. After an opulent wedding and an obnoxiously extravagant honeymoon, they’re called back to Seattle because an old enemy of Anastasia’s has begun stalking them, infiltrating Christian’s offices and eventually threatening her in their new home. There’s more to it than that, but not a hell of a lot more. In fact, one of the chief issues with this glitzy rat-trap of a movie is that it doesn’t have a point. Yes, their relationship is somewhat tempestuous and they bang a lot, but so what? Yes, Anastasia’s former boss has come unhinged and is stalking her, but it’s such a cast-off side story that it almost doesn’t matter until the wheels come off in the final 20 minutes, resulting in a kidnapping and car chase and I wanted to smash my own brain in with a hammer.
But all of that is secondary to the relationship between Christian and Anastasia, and that’s why the movie is such a fucking nightmare. Fifty Shades markets itself as a swirling Cinderella romance with a dash of kink, with a mousy nobody who is swept off her feet by a charming billionaire with a penchant for handcuffs and rough play. But the union between Christian and Anastasia is so unbelievably toxic and awful that it becomes an endurance test to sit through. Anastasia, at least in this entry’s iteration of the character, is a reasonably well-adjusted human. She is now an editor at a publishing company, and she seems to have her shit together. Except that her husband is absolute fucking trash. A bossy, arrogant, ignorant sack of dick-paste with a great body and the brain of an electro-shocked gorilla high on rhino horn, he serves no purpose other than to be an asshole. I get it, he’s an overindulged man-child. But he’s also simply a bad person. He barges in on her professional meetings because he’s petty and jealous, he demands that she change her name, he doesn’t want to “share” her with the possibility of a child. When she has a moment of crisis, he petulantly storms off and gets drunk with a former mistress. When she does even the slightest thing to anger him, he gives her the silent treatment and ignores her.
What’s worse, the film plays all of this off as if it’s perfectly normal. As if it’s acceptable behavior. Yes, Anastasia gets frustrated and they fight about it, but she also giggles resignedly when he calls her six times while she’s out with a friend despite the fact that he knows both where she is and who she’s with. This is all the more stupefying because you can tell that James, that blank-eyed lackwit of a writer, thinks that his personality is somehow tied into his BDSM desires, as if being interested in a different variant of sexual appetite is the result of being a domineering shitbird. Except it’s not. That’s not how this works, EL James, you dumb motherfucker. Being into BDSM is a perfectly acceptable sexual choice, provided that, as always, you have two willing partners. But being matched with a man who has no respect for personal, professional, or emotional boundaries isn’t a reflection of that sexuality. Seething, irrational jealousy isn’t a charming personality quirk. It’s just being an awful person.
This all comes to a head when Christian, in an angry fit because his wife didn’t return his phone call, actually weaponizes their sex life, tormenting her while she’s tied up to the point where she tearfully cries out their safe word, not because the thrill is too hot or the boundary is pushed too far, but because he uses sex as a means of torture and vengeance. AND YET SHE STAYS. Fifty Shades Freed isn’t a sexual revolution or a love story for the new millennium, it’s an ignorant, poisonous anti-feminist hate anthem that sets fire to any kind of progressive ideologies about how men and women should treat each other.
Of course, there are moving parts behind this movie beyond its clogged gas station toilet bowl of a story, and they’re equally culpable. Director James Foley has created a fictional universe devoid of color or life — they live in an artless cavern of an apartment with all the appeal of a parking garage. They travel in ridiculous luxury, and if the story has a moral, it’s that money can solve virtually any problem. There are supporting characters, but they exist only to show us how amazing Christian and Anastasia are, chirping vacuously as Anastasia regales them with tales of Christian’s ego while he sits impassively next to her, dressed impeccably, like a Banana Republic mannequin stuffed with privilege and horseshit.
I suppose we should talk about the sex since it features every ten minutes or so. The Fifty Shades franchise has always hinged itself on its raciness and its abundant sex, and I suppose that’s there. But the aspects of it were so tame that it’s hard to figure out what all the bother is about. Sure, I get that this is a wide-release, studio film — it’s not like I was expecting candlewax on the nipples, or witchcraft — but it’s so weirdly vanilla that it’s almost… disappointing? The straightforward sex is your usual Nicholas Sparks movie shit — breathy gasps and quick editing, only with a lot more ass and boobs. And while I wasn’t hoping for anything really perverse — I didn’t anticipate, I dunno, ballgags and horse cocks with gimp suits and clown makeup, what they show is so ultimately bland that it boggles the mind that it’s an actual draw. For a franchise that focuses so heavily on sexuality, its sex scenes are artless, unimaginative, and decidedly lackluster.
I know I’ve perhaps come off as harsh, but this movie is far worse than I’ve described. It’s irredeemably terrible. The writing is disastrously pedestrian, the dialogue rote and mawkish to the point where it feels like it was scripted by mentally defective monkeys, and the sex scenes are like a tire fire inside a robot handjob factory. I might give a slight amount of credit to Dakota Johnson for actually showing some real emotion and somehow keeping the unrelenting despair of her poor choices out of her eyes. But it’s canceled out by Dornan, a ripped and spectacular physical specimen with the charisma of a dinner plate and the acting acumen of a corpse. He’s utterly vacant in his every moment, with a variety of looks that appear to range from “is this food?” to “it’s not food”, regardless of the context. Every time he’s asked to emote, it looks like his brain is melting and no one in the room realizes it. There’s nothing to redeem Fifty Shades Freed, not even the promise of titillation. It’s like offering waffles for breakfast and then making the waffles out of misogyny and feces. Enjoy your god damn shitwaffle, America. You deserve it.