By Marshall Shaffer
“Fifty Shades of Grey” boasts a killer soundtrack of catchy pop tunes from some top artists – Beyoncé, Ellie Goulding, Sia – to spruce up what might otherwise be boring, forgettable montages. But while I watched the dominant sadomasochist Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) attempt to lure the innocent, virginal Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) into a contract as his submissive, another song kept playing in my head.
Here’s an excerpt from that song, “Never Learn Not To Love” by The Beach Boys.
“Cease to resist, come on say you love me
Give up your world, come on and be with me
I’m your kind, I’m your kind, and I see
Submission is a gift given to another
Love and understanding is for one another
I’m your kind, I’m your kind, and I see”
The surfing rock group makes those lyrics sound pleasant, even romantic. But they become rather frightening when considering who they essentially plagiarized the song from: Charles Manson.
There’s something decidedly demented (or, dare I say, “Haunted” like the Beyoncé track from the film) about Grey’s psychology. He pulls heavily from pimp logic, the same rationale Manson used to lure and maintain his followers. Grey obsesses over making Anastasia sign a contract that allows him free license, within mutually agreeable bounds, to exploit her endlessly for the purposes of whetting his niche sexual appetites. He gets pleasure, while she gets an odd mixture of fear and love. (Seems like a rather uneven balance of power, but I’m single – so what do I know?)
Getting her John Hancock serves as the conflict and obstacle that keeps the thin plot of “Fifty Shades of Grey” going, although there is a compelling case that the one-upmanship of the successive sex scenes is what really keeps the interest in an otherwise standard-issue “romance.” Those just watching for skin should not even bother tuning in until the 45 minute mark, when the conventional courtship tale switches gears into the kind of soft-core porn film that plays around midnight on HBO.
Director Sam Taylor-Johnson is far more comfortable with showing sex in “Fifty Shades of Grey” than Kelly Marcel’s script is with talking about it. Grey’s peculiar philosophy, as well as Anastasia’s wavering acceptance of it, feels underexplained at the very least and underexplored at the worst. Where exactly the author and filmmakers stand on matters of gender and sexuality could be either fiercely feminist (Third Wavers fought for choice, after all) or mildly misogynistic. I chose not to lose sleep over the matter, as the film is little more than dime-store smut mounted with a $40 million budget.
Regardless of ideology, Dakota Johnson shines as the awkward, animated Anastasia. Her incredulous responses to Grey’s “singular tastes” makes her a great stand-in for the audience. As for Dornan’s Grey, he really only makes sense as the logical extreme of the Type A personality. He is such an uptight control freak that, in the words of Ferris Bueller, “if you stuck a lump of coal up his ass, in two weeks you’d have a diamond.” (And for all I know, he might get turned on by that, too.)
Grey is all stoicism with no smolder, and it is one of the main reasons the film never quite clicks. His allure makes little sense when it appears he is merely reciting lines, not speaking organically. Maybe this has something to do with the fact that Dornan is extremely stiff in the role. I’m talking about his acting, by the way, not his…
Well, we don’t even see that, anyways. Johnson goes full frontal, exposing all of herself, while Dornan gives only the briefest flash of hair down below. The film simultaneously objectifies him and guards his sculpted physicality. For a story like “Fifty Shades of Grey” that deals so candidly in carnality, it seems the only logical means of operation would be going all in. Instead, the film seems at war with the competing impulses of a campy modesty and salacious smut.