Brow Beat

Why Fifty Shades’ New Director Is the Schlockmeister the Franchise Needs and Deserves

Director James Foley’s films Reckless, Fifty Shades Darker, and Fear.
The moody couples of James Foley’s films Reckless, Fifty Shades Darker, and Fear.

Photo illustration by Slate. © MGM and Universal Pictures.

A young man and woman stare into each other’s eyes. They kiss. The Sundays’ cover of “Wild Horses” plays. With the Seattle skyline as backdrop, he helps her onto a roller coaster with a conveniently loose-fitting safety bar. She takes his hand, and as they climb to the peak, one of the most guffaw-worthy sex scenes in recent movie history comes to life.

As any scholar of quality screen trash can tell you, the man is Mark Wahlberg, the woman is Reese Witherspoon, and the movie is 1996’s Fear, the notorious thriller about a teen romance gone very wrong. It is the film all good Lifetime movies want to be: zany, ridiculous, but also charged with real sexual energy and unafraid of the brutality built into its premise. The director, James Foley, specializes in this sort of thing—moody men and women who court each other with furtive glances, over-the-top passion, and an escalating sense of danger. Foley has never quite earned the status of fellow smut auteurs like Adrian Lyne (Unfaithful, 9 ½ Weeks), but his gifts are similar: He takes dime-novel premises and makes them into movies both far more erotic and far more entertaining than they have any right to be.

But soon Foley, who is 63 and has been going at it for three decades, may finally earn his place in the pantheon. That’s because two years ago he was named the new director in charge of the Fifty Shades franchise, taking command of the next two film adaptations of the infamous E.L. James books, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed. He replaced Sam Taylor-Johnson, who became one of the top-grossing female directors ever on Fifty Shades of Grey and was one of the rare women to helm a blockbuster movie. (She reportedly feuded with the series’ protective author.) Foley’s hiring was understandably lamented, especially among feminist foes of the franchise, who found small solace in a female filmmaker using it to make rare Hollywood inroads. That is hard to dispute. But for those who see Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey’s adventures solely as a venue for the communal appreciation of lurid celluloid garbage, Foley at the helm is a little bit of a dream. If the original Fifty Shades’ greatest sin is that it is simply boring—elegant and far more cogent than the material deserved—Foley promises the messier, unapologetically crazed movies these were born to be.

Reckless, Foley’s 1984 debut, starts like many teen romances: A motorcycle-riding boy (Aidan Quinn, also in his debut) has eyes for a well-to-do girl (Daryl Hannah) and tries to court her by pretending he doesn’t care. It proceeds like any other adolescent Rust Belt drama—until it virtually shuts down in its second act for what is essentially a movie-spanning sex scene. There is a long sequence where the couple stares each other down poolside, undressing with comic overstatement; there is school-basement sex and parents-house sex; there is startling frontal nudity for young actors. The camera has a notable fondness for the young Quinn’s body, with lingering shots of him in the shower that go on a few beats longer than they should. By the time the hero drives a motorcycle through his high school, it’s clear we’re in the hands of a director with a certain … élan.

Foley cemented his talents for bonkers bad-boy thrillers with 1986’s At Close Range, featuring a 25-year-old Sean Penn who gets wrapped up in an overwrought criminal scheme (and a young Mary Stuart Masterson). Here, too, Foley shows a special appreciation for well-toned male bodies, as Penn struggles to move around in his T-shirt, when he wears one at all. Foley took a detour with Penn’s then-wife Madonna on Who’s That Girl (1987) before returning to his favored hard-boiled young men in After Dark, My Sweet (1990), based on a Jim Thompson novel. In what might be Foley’s most acclaimed movie, Jason Patric stars as a boxer-turned-drifter who, despite having lost his mind, earns the various romantic affections of a beautiful alcoholic (Rachel Ward) and a genteel doctor (George Dickerson). Foley makes fine use of Patric’s blue eyes and vague menace as the boxer broods, kidnaps a child, and descends into madness.

Foley went on to make mainstream movies both well-received (1992’s Glengarry Glen Ross) and less so (1996’s The Chamber) before finding himself back on his natural turf with Fear. The movie, a failure at the time but destined to become a cult classic, concerns a well-off Seattle girl (Witherspoon) who unwisely falls for the clear serial-killer charms of an older boy (Wahlberg). He soon goes full lunatic and enters a bizarro psychosexual duel with the girl’s father (William Petersen). The movie is all over the place, but it is never less than magnificently strange, roving from icky paternal drama to Calvin Klein–era Wahlberg abs to genuinely disturbing violence. The roller coaster sequence, which is hard to interpret as anything but a demented “climax” metaphor, remains a favorite of shrieking repertory crowds.

In the decade after Fear, Foley worked steadily in film (including a contribution to the Halle Berry thriller canon), and he’s recently been hired mostly for television (including Showtime’s Billions, a hysterical series for which he could not be better suited). But he has never quite hit the same deranged heights.

Still, tell a Fear fan that the director is taking on the Fifty Shades franchise, and you’re likely to get excited groans, because it makes Fifty Shades Darker required viewing for a special subspecies of moviegoer. Foley’s instinct to embrace the excess, the overheated sex, and the camp potential of his material suggests he will make a fine steward for a franchise whose main ambition should be making audiences yell at the screen. (That’s not to mention his historical reverence for the male form, from Quinn to Penn to Wahlberg, which promises nice things for devotees of Jamie Dornan.)

I have yet to see the new movie—after all, I must not spoil my Valentine’s Day plans—but I have to imagine Universal executives are already pleased with themselves. Somewhere in a Hollywood screening room a couple years ago, watching Mark Wahlberg snarl into a peephole as they assessed Foley’s qualifications, they must have known they had another hit on their hands.