- Written and directed by Chloe Domont
- Starring Phoebe Dynevor, Alden Ehrenreich and Eddie Marsan
- Classification N/A; 113 minutes
- Opens in select theatres Sept. 29; streaming on Netflix starting Oct. 6
The new film Fair Play is such a steamy affair – both metaphorically and literally, with mists escaping from shower stalls and sewer grates alike – that critics might feel the need to clear the air before getting lost in its thick vapours. By which I mean: Despite the many headlines proclaiming director Chloe Domont’s feature debut to mark the long-awaited return of the “erotic thriller,” Fair Play sits as far away from that genre as Paul Verhoeven is from Pixar.
While there might be plenty of sex in Domont’s nerve-rattling film, its eroticism is strictly restricted to the tumescent toxicity that comes with hoarding power. And any thrill that audiences might discover here is not in watching two bodies come up against one another under the sheets – or under a shower head – but in how they collide, callously and brutally, with the cold-water realities of everyday misogyny and ice-cold Corporate America politics. The “erotic thriller” branding is easy enough to understand from a marketing perspective – even the film’s producer, Knives Out empire-builder Rian Johnson, has called Fair Play “the kind of twisted erotic thriller for grown-ups that we all need more of” – but it’s all a grand seduction to mask what is a far more complicated, messy affair.
When Domont introduces Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich), they’re a young, sexy couple madly in love with one another. Their infatuation is so intoxicating and all-consuming that neither thinks much about going to town on each other in the bathroom during a family wedding. Perhaps their passions are fuelled by the taboo of secrecy, as Domont quickly reveals that the two are co-workers at the same high-end New York hedge fund firm, their relationship unknown to their cutthroat co-workers or supervisors.
This stress is soon exacerbated by Emily’s promotion, which puts her in a position of managerial power over Luke. A few errors in Luke’s judgment later, and the lines between office and domestic lives begin to blur, forcing the couple to reveal their true loyalties. In between the capitalist conniving, yes, there is some sex – but Domont has made a film to repel audiences, not turn them on. As Luke begins to eye Emily’s career with the jealous gaze of a million unremarkable men who got the corner office thanks to their Y chromosome, a palpable sense of dread fills each frame of the film. The under-the-surface queasiness eventually leads to an encounter between the two that is impressively, memorably nauseating.
Domont creates an immense challenge for herself in trying to ground Emily among the expectations of Wall Street’s wolves, which includes not only Luke but two parasitical hedge fund honchos played by Eddie Marsan and Rich Sommer (the latter still typecast in Mad Men mode). But the film is neither a stern lecture nor cheap entertainment, with Domont instead threading the needle somewhere in-between to create a tense guessing game of just how far she will push her characters.
Dynevor, familiar to most for her work on Bridgerton, holds her own as a 21st-century student of Gordon Gekko, even as Emily pushes herself into some particularly ugly corners of the market. And Ehrenreich, fresh off some seriously impressive scene-stealing work in Oppenheimer, makes Luke’s slip into sliminess seem more gradual than mere flip-switch. Watching the two performers go from tearing off each other’s clothes to tearing into each other’s weaknesses is both a pleasure and a terror. But Fair Play is not a film to fall in love with – it wants you to feel dirty. And for all the wrong reasons.