One of the very best film debuts of the year, Chloe Domont’s Fair Play is a bracingly taut psychosexual thriller that leaves an impact. Acquired by Netflix for a hefty $20 million sum after it screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January, it’s the kind of serious-minded adult drama that could gain gobs of traction if it doesn’t get lost in the algorithm after its release. Increasingly, Netflix’s content machine is more focused on producing disposable entertainment that checks off demographic or genre boxes rather than rewarding exceptional filmmakers with attentive audiences. It’s a common practice now for people watching TV at home to also have their smartphone out in front of their face at the same time, effectively creating a “two-screen” experience. Fair Play is a movie that demands your single-screen attention.
We meet Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) at the wedding of the latter’s brother, where the couple sneak off for an unexpectedly messy bathroom tryst. An engagement ring falls out of Luke’s pocket, a hasty proposal is carried out and the happy couple covertly leaves the wedding in lovedrunk bliss. But the 4:30 AM alarm comes all too soon and the two go about getting ready for their workdays, which we soon learn take place at the highly competitive firm Crest Capital. They’re keeping their relationship a secret from everyone at the office, desperate not to break company policy in front of their boss Campbell (Eddie Marsan). After the calamitous firing of a portfolio manager, analysts like Emily and Luke wait with baited breath to see who will fill the new opening but after Emily gets the promotion, Luke’s jealousies and insecurities bubble up and threaten their relationship.
Though there have been plenty of tense movies set in the world of high finance, what makes Fair Play especially fraught is the personal stakes atop the high pressure setting of the hedge fund world. Emily first hears a rumor that Luke is next in line for the coveted PM position and when she tells him, they’re both excited at the proposition. There’s implicit gender bias at play when Emily is expected to be happy for Luke and report to him with no issue but when the roles are reversed, he is clearly uncomfortable with her being the boss. He fakes excitement upon hearing the news but after just the first day of working under her, he’s clearly bitter and pouts at a bar when the work day is over. From there, the passive aggressive missives get less “passive” as the story steams ahead. Even though their relationship gets more toxic and twisted over time, I somehow still wanted things to be reconciled between the two of these characters.
The pair of performances at the center of Fair Play are nothing short of electric. Dynevor has a more complex role, given that she has the biggest shifts between how she represents herself in her personal life with Luke versus how she runs her professional life in the office. Emily puts a tremendous amount of pressure on herself not only to excel in her new position but to salvage a relationship that used to be filled with passion and understanding but is becoming more doomed by the day. Dynevor is incredible in so many scenes but the one in which she begs with Luke to try to refer him to another firm so that he can save his career and their engagement was particularly heart-wrenching. Ehrenreich has the less empathetic role as the rampantly petulant Luke but his unnerving level of ambition certainly makes him a compelling antagonist. Between this and his rewarding work in Oppenheimer back in July, Ehrenreich is continuing to carve quite a career out for himself.
As with many thrillers, the pace is critical to keeping the audience hooked and Domont along with editor Franklin Peterson assert a sprinter’s clip through the almost two-hour runtime. There are moments that mirror one another, as when a phone alarm first goes off early in the morning but each subsequent instance of it appearing finds one or both of the protagonists already wide awake, drearily looking at the phone in anticipation. I particularly loved a timbre match cut late in the film, where a character yelling an expletive merges seamlessly into a train brake screeching outside. Speaking of sound, there are also soulful doo-wop tunes embedded throughout the film which call to mind that this should be this couple’s honeymoon period instead of their unraveling. It may not be the easiest watch but in its ruthless examination of sexual politics and cataclysmic competition, Fair Play is riveting and unmissable.
Score – 4/5
More movies coming this weekend:
Playing only in theaters is The Exorcist: Believer, a supernatural horror sequel starring Leslie Odom Jr. and Ellen Burstyn, in which the parents of demonically possessed girls search for help by way of Regan MacNeil’s mother from the first The Exorcist.
Streaming on Amazon Prime is Totally Killer, a horror comedy starring Kiernan Shipka and Olivia Holt about a teenager who accidentally travels back in time to 1987 determined to stop an infamous local serial killer before he can start his spree.
Premiering on Paramount+ is Pet Sematary: Bloodlines, a horror prequel starring Jackson White and Forrest Goodluck taking place 50 years before the original Pet Sematary, where a young boy first discovers a local cemetery where the dead can live again.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup