The erotic thriller seemingly climaxed in the ‘90s, brought to its peak by films like Basic Instinct, The Last Seduction and Indecent Proposal. While many filmmakers have attempted to keep the genre alive since, there is something classic and uncomplicated about those earlier iterations. Enter Fair Play, written and directed by Chloe Domont, making her feature film debut. The Netflix (NFLX) thriller, which stars Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich, two beautiful people who embody the genre with a seamless ease, evokes those late-‘80s and early-‘90s flicks in a way that’s assuredly entertaining.
FAIR PLAY ★★★1/2 (3.5/4 stars)
Dynevor is Emily, recently engaged to Ehrenreich’s Luke. They live together in Manhattan and are keeping their relationship a secret because they both work at the same high-powered hedge fund, run by a ferocious boss, Campbell (Eddie Marsan). When one of their colleagues is fired, Emily overhears speculation that Luke is up for the promotion. But Campbell actually wants Emily for the job thanks to her shrewd predictions. At first, Luke is happy for her—or so it seems. He plays the supportive fiancé, but jealousy simmers underneath, especially when he is tasked as her analyst. Emily begins to stay out late, answering Campbell’s calls at all hours of the night and pounding booze like there’s no such thing as a hangover. Tension seeps into the couple’s relationship and soon Luke reaches his boiling point.
What makes Fair Play so compelling is less the story itself and more what Domont does with a fairly basic premise. An uncomfortable sense of misogyny winds its way through the film, underscoring every action and reaction. When we meet Luke he seems like a jovial, kind-hearted guy—the sort of man any woman would be lucky to marry. But the reality of his female partner succeeding over him is more than Luke can bear. It’s more than he should have to bear. He’s the man, after all, and men should hold the power. Domont immerses Emily in a sea of male dominance, on one side from Luke, who struggles to be happy for her success, and on the other from her coworkers, who are rowdy, sexist and condescending. She’s accused of being a slut—how else would she have gotten this promotion?—and Luke can’t help but gaslight Emily into thinking she’s been hired to tick a diversity box.
As Luke becomes increasingly unhinged—a great gender shift from films like Fatal Attraction—Fair Play hurtles towards an inevitable collision. But Domont steers away from what you might expect, giving the audience an ending that is satisfying and frustrating at the same time. At times, you want to scream at the screen, both because the characters need to get a grip and because it’s all too familiar. What woman hasn’t come face to face with a man unable to stomach her success? Even the nice ones, like Luke, can’t completely free themselves of their entitlement. Domont hits on an uneasy truth, which is what makes Fair Play so interesting. Dynevor and Ehrenreich feel like real movie stars, too, which helps to conjure the feeling of those early erotic thrillers. You want no part of this story in real life, but it’s so much fun to watch.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.