Fair Play (United States, 2023)

September 26, 2023
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Fair Play Poster

For anyone who bemoans the dearth of psychological thrillers in today’s motion picture landscape, Chloe Domont’s feature debut offers a blend of modern sensibility with ’80s throwback ingredients. Think Fatal Attraction and Single White Female for how it examines the way the curdling of a sexual relationship can spiral out of control. Fair Play is more grounded than either of those films (and countless others released before the genre petered out during the ‘90s) but it offers many of the same pleasures. And, by presenting events primarily from a female perspective, a smattering of gender politics raises the temperature of the narrative.

As the movie opens, we are introduced to two lovers – Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) – whose cohabitation arrangement must remain secret from their co-workers. Emily and Luke are both analysts at a high-profile Wall Street hedge fund that has strict rules against fraternization (especially of the romantic variety) among employees. It’s potentially a fireable offense so they are on thin ice. But they’re in love and claim they would never put their careers above each other – a belief that’s about to be tested.

When an investor is fired after experiencing a meltdown, speculation runs rampant about his likely successor. Scuttlebutt suggests that Luke is in for the job and the happy couple celebrates not only their engagement but Luke’s impending promotion. But that’s not what happens. The Big Boss, Campbell (Veteran British character actor Eddie Marsan), dislikes Luke but is impressed by Emily (despite later labeling her as a “dumb bitch”), so he gives her the job. Luke does his best to submerge his disappointment and support Emily but the sudden shift in their positions and earning power becomes too much for him. He becomes erratic, pugnacious, and difficult to live with.

One of the most pleasantly noticeable things about Fair Play is that, unlike seemingly 90% of today’s thrillers, this one isn’t afraid of eroticism. The nudity isn’t extreme or graphic, but the movie is willing to show some flesh when it’s appropriate, rather than hiding it from the camera. The sex scenes between leads Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich do a great job of establishing the initial relationship between the two – a necessity for the balance of the film to work.

Fair Play falls into the slow-boil category. There’s a lot of exposition in the early-going as writer/director Domont develops the dynamic between Emily and Luke both inside and out of the office. When everything starts falling apart, it’s like a trainwreck in slow motion. As an audience, we’re aware that there’s no happy ending in the offing but it takes much longer for the characters to come to the same realization. The only question is how deep into the abyss the death spiral of their relationship will take them. The tension and suspense that characterizes the film’s second half is focused on that issue.

The ultimate resolution – meaning the events that occur during the final 15 minutes or so – goes off the rails a bit, pandering toward viewers who have watched films like Fatal Attraction a few too many times. The film’s missteps are calculated crowd-pleasers but they are out-of-synch with the tone Domont has developed over the previous 100 (or so) minutes. It’s a little jarring.

The actors do workmanlike jobs portraying characters following opposing arcs. Phoebe Dynevor, who came to the world’s attention for her role as the female protagonist in the first season of Bridgerton, starts Emily out as quiet and meek but allows her to find her voice as her backbone grows.  Alden Ehrenreich, who once tried to play a younger version of movie-dom’s favorite galactic smuggler in Solo, starts out as brash but finds his sanity and confidence challenged as he sees his future at the hedge fund “usurped” (as he sees it) by his girlfriend. True love turns toxic.

Fair Play is a tidy, engaging thriller. It asks questions about the male ego and some of the difficulties faced by women ascending the ladder of power in a traditionally male-dominated field. But, although the movie has a message, it isn’t about the message. Instead, this is a tragic love story that devolves into something darker and, although it doesn’t qualify as a white-knuckle sort of movie, it exerts a magnetism that’s difficult to turn away from.

Fair Play (United States, 2023)

Director: Chloe Domont
Cast: Phoebe Dynevor, Alden Ehrenreich, Eddie Marsan
Screenplay: Chloe Domont
Cinematography: Menno Mans
Music: Brian McOmber
U.S. Distributor: Netflix
Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: 2023-09-29
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Nudity, Profanity, Violence)
Genre: Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1