By: Steve Pulaski
When the credits of Fifty Shades Freed rolled, concluding a film that only wasted about an hour and forty minutes of my time as opposed to its two predecessors, which both felt it necessary to keep me in my seat for over two hours, I felt a sort of liberation myself. I was freed from a franchise three films too long, all short of a shred of realism. Fifty Shades Freed lives up to the standards set by its offensively bad and pathetically sterile BDSM-lite fanfiction source material that somehow captivated an entire audience of people that couldn't make the effort to dig a bit deeper and find erotic literature that was well-written and respectful to their female characters as well as a larger community. Three years after the first film hit theaters, you might claim you saw it just to bear witness to the sex scenes in the film. Frankly, it would be less upsetting to hear you went for the plot.
You should know, however, that Fifty Shades Freed is so light on sex that it nearly qualifies for a PG-13 rating. It's as if while watching the film, you can hear studio executives spouting such trivial statements during the film's pre-production such as, "this one needs more plot" or "this time, there are stakes" in effort to try and end the franchise with a bang. The bang at hand, however, is muted like a gun with a silencer, as the previous films set up so little in the way of meaningful conflict that this final installment, while a tad better than its predecessor, feels like it's nothing but an obligation. Everyone in the film looks like they are filling contractual terms, with all the life sucked out of them and their performances after years of controversy, scathing reviews, and few career options going forward.
The film picks up on Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson), who are married off in a luxurious wedding ceremony within the opening minutes of the film. Their exotic honeymoon, however, is cut short due to a fire at Christian's corporate headquarters. The blaze was started by Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), Ana's former boss who assaulted her before she quit. Jack becomes hungry for revenge on Ana just as she is acclimating to her new life as Christian's mistress. But this is a life that comes with a price, as Christian sets stern rules for Ana, especially with Jack spying on the couple, and these new and invasive boundaries understandably frustrate her.
With every subsequent installment, the Fifty Shades of Grey films have appeared less and less sexy and more troubling. These are films that do not sell sex, but sell a fantasy of a rich, powerful man sweeping an ordinary woman off her feet and introducing her to a life ostensibly more fulfilling and liberating. However, the liberation is only a possibility if the woman complies with the terms set by the man, and as it plays out in this case, Ana rapidly loses her agency as a woman capable of making her own decisions. Consider how offended Christian is when he learns Ana hasn't changed her name in his company's address book to reflect their marriage, or how he employs a bodyguard (Brant Daugherty) to follow and taxi her around, mostly to places that he demands she goes. No woman would nor should put up with this kind of abusive behavior, but put it in an expensive Hollywood movie, make the archetypes attractive, and throw in sex scenes as flavorful as tap-water, and many will eat it up and claim it the product of their wildest dreams.
For Fifty Shades Freed's sake, replacing the insulting subplot involving Christian's former mistress from Fifty Shades Darker is Jack's vindictive attitude towards the main couple, for whom he harbors nothing but contempt. Jack's presence at least pushes the film to have some suspense even in the crudest sense of the word. There is a car-chase scene where Christian lets Ana take the wheel of his Audi, which leads to her weaving in and out of traffic in order to get away from Jack, who follows closely behind in an SUV. There's also the element of time that's crucial to an extended sequences where Ana must race against factors with which she has little control over. To clarify, these instances are by no means great, but they provide a kind of energy that's been sorely missing from this franchise since its inception. This late in the game, I'll take misguided, tardy energy over none at all.
I'll also take pedestrian car-chases and intensified peril over BDSM sex that, save for closeups of breasts, would likely be permissible to show during daytime soap-operas. Besides the poor acting from the still impossibly uncharismatic lead actors, the rotten core where this franchise stinks most ghastly stems from its horribly neutered sex scenes. In Fifty Shades Freed, it appears the series has regressed with how little the respective scenes actually show and, in effort to compensate, a nauseating host of disposable R&B ballads plays in order to make us believe we're watching something with a remnant of passion. I've iterated my disgust with Universal backing off its proposal of making the series NC-17, so the films could portray the sex with the appropriate level of explicitness several times already, but with Fifty Shades Freed, it's as if the studio just gave up on the whole concept of really including them at all. Not that I'm complaining.
Fifty Shades Freed concludes a misbegotten franchise swiftly and unceremoniously. It's a fittingly lackluster installment that lives up to the pitiful standards set forth by two lame predecessors, the former a mediocre disappointment and the latter an unmitigated disgrace. I'll give it some credit, however; it knew when to end, just as things were hitting new lows.