The disquieting root of Chloe Domont’s slinky, slick feature debut “Fair Play” lies in the face of Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) as he learns that his fiance Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) has been given the promotion at their Wall Street hedge fund he thought was his.
“Congratulations,” he says with a grin that looks more like a grimace. “That’s amazing.”
Ehrenreich, a cunning actor here given a part to chew on, conveys the moment with the just right mix of of support for Emily and shattering woundedness. Up to this point, we’ve seen Emily and Luke as only a swoon-worthy romantic pair deeply in love with one another. In the film’s breezy opening moments, they slip away from a party to have sex in a bathroom. After, Luke kneels to propose.
But the engagement ring lies ominously on the counter when both dress in the morning for work in their their Chinatown apartment at the same high-powered hedge fund in downtown New York. They’ve left some inner version of their selves at home; at the office, they must keep their relationship a secret for the sake of company policy and their own career ambitions.
Work-life balance gets more than a little wobbly in “Fair Play,” which debuts Friday on Netflix, and so do traditional gender roles. Luke initially puts up a good front, but his alpha male persona (and his libido) takes a beating when Emily’s meetings with the sexist boss Campbell (Eddie Marsan) go past midnight and banter around the office turns to his fiance. In “Fair Play,” the supportive male may just be a facade.
Since its hit arrival at the Sundance Film Festival, “Fair Play” has been hailed for reviving the long-dormant-but-often-missed erotic thriller. While there are bits of that in Domont’s film, “Fair Play” is neither especially erotic nor much of a thriller. What it is, though, is often gripping battle of the sexes set in a toxic, misogynist corporate world where power and sex are inextricably linked currencies.
The movie is brilliant and breezy at first but sputters just as its catching fire. It may, in fact, be wrong to call this a battle of the sexes — Luke turns out to be not really up for a fight. He transforms into an emasculated and increasingly volatile wreck and “Fair Play” lurches toward a lurid and overcooked third act. For Emily — and surely countless women just like her — “Fair Play” is more of a horror movie, and an accurate one at that.
But for a while, Domont’s film is electric thanks to its lead actors. Dynevor is especially terrific playing a woman whose first thought when she’s promoted isn’t pride for herself but concern for the hurt feelings of Luke.
At its best, “Fair Play” feels like a demented game where everything in high finance comes down to how you project yourself, man or woman. Emily knows when meeting the boss to switch her drink order from a Diet Coke to Macallen 25, neat. It’s in sly moments like these that Domont is at her most playful. Double entendres fly. Coming home drunk one night, Emily tries to cajole a tired Luke into sleeping with her. “C’mon,” she says, “I’ll do all the work.” JAKE COYLE, MDT/AP Film Writer
“Fair Play,” a Netflix release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for pervasive language, sexual content, some nudity, and sexual violence. Running time: 113 minutes. ★★★★