Fair Play, 2023.
Written and Directed by Chloe Domont.
Starring Phoebe Dynevor, Alden Ehrenreich, Sebastian de Souza, Eddie Marsan, Rich Sommer, Geraldine Somerville, Sia Alipour, Jim Sturgeon, Brandon Bassir, Jamie Wilkes, Freddy Sawyer, Patrick Fischler, Leopold Hughes, Jamie Wilkes, Buck Braithwaite, Laurel Lefkow, and Yacine Ramoul.
An unexpected promotion at a cutthroat hedge fund pushes a young couple’s relationship to the brink, threatening to unravel far more than their recent engagement.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strike. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, Fair Play wouldn’t exist.
At around midnight, happy and horny partners/finance firm co-workers Emily and Luke (respectively played by Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich) of feature-length debut writer/director Chloe Domont’s Fair Play are settling into bed following intimately celebrating a probable job promotion for the latter. Their boss Campbell (Eddie Marsan), phones the former, requesting a meeting at a location dubbed the Golden Room. Needless to say, this sounds potentially scary and dangerous given that name and the time of night, with Emily visibly nervous before and after arriving. Thankfully, there is no misconduct of any kind. Instead, she is informed that she will receive the coveted promotion. However, upon her arrival back at the New York apartment she and Luke share, he sensitively and softly questions if anything happened to her.
This is important to note because, while Luke initially comes across as unbothered and supportive that his partner within this two-year relationship that goes against corporate policy has climbed the ladder before him, it’s painfully clear that he is hiding feelings of frustration and failure, but also that every time he comes back to interrogating his girlfriend about Campbell, it comes across less sincere and hollow. There is an unraveling of the psyche here, with Luke inexplicably convinced and delusional that he is not only a more dedicated and skilled worker than his partner Emily but that the only way she could have got that promotion is if she performed sexual favors for a boss that, while he is no saint, is also not interested in abusing power for that purpose.
This is a slow and gradual descent into self-imposed insecurity and humility that Chloe Domont excels at building upon, also thanks to an unsettling performance from Alden Ehrenreich expressing those unsavory characteristics. Meanwhile, Phoebe Dynevor is equally outstanding as a woman torn between being happy for herself and attempting to do everything possible to level the playing field when she shouldn’t have to, even if it means casting some attention on the relationship to get Luke the next promotion.
That still doesn’t stop Luke from feeling inadequate and incompetent, as he begins ignoring Emily’s wants and needs entirely, funneling all his extra time into a financing self-help book, something that he then uses to insult her appearance, declaring that she doesn’t dress assertive enough. There’s no denying that Luke is transitioning into a bitter jerk, but there is also some merit to his claims that Emily allows her superiors to walk all over her, such as repeatedly taking phone calls at midnight rather than setting business hour boundaries. Still, it’s apparent that no one walks over her more than Luke.
As a result, all the sexual energy Luke had is gone, despite Emily’s repeated efforts and desires to be intimate. This also calls into question what Luke enjoys about being intimate with Emily; does he love her or only find pleasure in controlling her? Frustrated that there is seemingly no way to bring this manchild back into a cheery mood, Emily begins acting out, frequently coming home wasted, typically after drinking with her other co-workers and boss, trying to fit in as one of the boys. That’s not to say that women shouldn’t be doing those things, but that, in this case, Emily is doing them for the wrong reasons, once again feeling pressured to prove herself in a male-dominated environment.
The decreased sex drive on behalf of one relationship member also means there isn’t much sex here. Furthermore, it also means anyone (especially Netflix, who seems to be promoting it that way) raving that Fair Play is an erotic thriller is either out of their minds or a walking red flag (probably both.) It is a story about the stock market finance world and the disheartening ways women fit into that picture, often perceived as annoying to work with (something that the men are more vocal about once she receives her promotion) and performing sexual favors to elevate their position. More importantly, it also shows how fast and dangerously someone could become corrupted by this line of thinking in the aftermath of their professional shortcomings.
Considering that Emily and Luke have been dating for two years, his every evolving moment into a complete psychopath doesn’t fully ring true; surely, presumably, that mental instability would have already popped up sooner. There is also an added dynamic that they have gotten engaged right before Emily’s promotion, leading to unnecessary drama involving her family setting up a party celebrating the occasion, which naturally comes to fruition at the worst imaginable time. The third night shift into unhinged thriller territory works, though, because it’s not about Luke but about Emily’s realization that she is a victim of abuse and the one simple thing he wants from him that he infuriatingly refuses to do.
It is also easy to appreciate that Chloe Domont isn’t necessarily criticizing the nature of this relationship as right or wrong. The viewers can judge for themselves whether they should have got together in the first place. Fair Play is about the volatility and insecurity that can quickly rise to the surface inside men who want to be successful, experiencing setbacks and being confronted with the truth that they are inferior to their partners, and how that responsive behavior has negative effects on their significant other as they whatever they can to make them happy.
Every questionable action Emily makes here is a by-product of her horrible situation, something people must realize when they try to armchair critique who is the good person and bad person in such broken relationship dynamics. Toxicity breeds toxicity. Unfortunately, some men are pathetic and will never find happiness without control. Meanwhile, Chloe Domont has tight and firm control over Fair Play, a gripping debut exploring power, gender, and sexual dynamics.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com