The opening of Fifty Shades Darker echoes a key scene in M. Night Shyamalan’s “split”: both films feature the flashback of a tormented man, in which his early-childhood self cowers under a bed while an adult hunts for him. In “Split,” the protagonist, Kevin Wendell Crumb, is getting therapy—in Shyamalan’s angry view, too little, too late. In “Fifty Shades,” the second film adapted from E. L. James’s erotic-fiction franchise, Christian Grey is in desperate need of therapy, and, if there were any identifiably human substance to the new film, his seeking it would be central to the plot.
At the end of the first installment, “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) couldn’t abide the punishment that the dominant Christian (Jamie Dornan) inflicted on her in his “red room of pain,” his gothic chamber of sexual paraphernalia, and so she walked out. (She had signed his contract of submission, but then repudiated it.)
Now, in the new movie, the blank billionaire is back—showing up with romance in mind just as Ana, newly equipped with her English degree, begins her dream job as the assistant to Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), the fiction editor of Seattle Independent Press. (Check out the editor’s last name and guess whether he’s a good guy.)
Christian offers himself to Ana as if he were a new generation of cell-phone plan—“no rules, no punishment,” no contract. He loves Ana and is willing to accept a relationship with her on her own terms: it will be “a vanilla relationship.” But, when they get to the bedroom, Christian seems to be short a few beans: he’s still unwilling to be touched by her. A viewer may wonder whether his aversion is at all related to the conspicuous burn marks on his chest, and, midway through the film, deep into their rekindled romance, Ana, too, thinks to ask about them—and, needless to say, gets no meaningful answer. If the burns aren’t enough, perhaps Christian’s admission to her that he’s no mere dominant but a sadist who takes pleasure in inflicting pain on others might prompt Ana to say that she’d like to be with him on the condition that he get help.
Or perhaps Christian’s controlling tendencies outside the bedroom might give her pause. There is, for instance, the very way in which he reappeared in her life: by showing up at a photography exhibit of work by her friend Jose (Victor Rasuk), which (she discovers) features six mural-sized portraits of her, and buying them all. Soon after Ana starts her new job, he probes her for information about the publishing house and considers buying it, too. (She’s dubious about him being her boss; he consoles her with the idea that he’d only be her “boss’s boss’s boss.”) To be fair, Christian has reason to have doubts about her employment: when Jack invites Ana for an after-work drink, Christian stops by the bar and sees instantly (as viewers already have) that the editor’s intentions are predatory. Where a human might later ask Ana whether her boss is harassing her, Christian, after insulting Jack and whisking away Ana, tells her, “He wants what’s mine.”
Popular culture is popular for a reason; even the most forgettable and disposable works touch on matters of authentic psychological urgency, despite distorting and falsifying and debasing them. That’s why the good ones—the ones that pull more than a few threads from the underlying tangle and let them show through the shiny surface of simplification—take hold of the imagination in ways that defy their modest artistic merits. (The echo chamber of popularity also has a sort of power itself, which may be why there’s something coincidentally nausea-inducing about the vision, in “Fifty Shades Darker,” of an oblivious billionaire with a fierce drive to inflict pain on others.)