Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) are madly in love. Engendering sex at every possible opportunity, their passion is a burning one and, after a quasi-impromptu engagement, their bond has become even deeper. Heading off to work from their NYC Chinatown apartment, though, something feels off. We quickly learn they are both low-level analysts at an elite, high-pressure financial firm and, due to company policy forbidding such a romance, their relationship must be kept a secret from everyone else. Complications ensue when a promotion is up for grabs, and this secrecy plants the seed for what festers into a gripping thriller that juggles power and gender dynamics in ways both cuttingly real and gleefully absurd. Beginning with a Margin Call-esque icy slickness in this kill-or-be-killed financial world before morphing into Adrian Lyne-style battle-of-the-sexes camp, Chloe Domont’s feature debut Fair Play cuts deep even as it comes dangerously close to careening off the cliff of plausibility with a screenplay that dips into sophomoric.

Submerging us into a world that feels like something out of a mob movie, a quietly conniving Eddie Marsan chews the scenery as the Don Corleone of this firm, ready to execute his version of a hit: letting his minions do the dirty work after firing a project manager who kicks and screams their way out of the building. Leaving an open position up for grabs, it provides an opportunity for either Emily or Luke to be called up and get enough “fuck you” money where they could reveal their impending marriage and no one can do anything about it. Considering how much the narrative’s power relies on where these twists and turns head, it wouldn’t be fair to divulge how the power dynamics evolve. It’s safe to say Domont, also the sole writer here, has crafted a gender-flipped Fatal Attraction update: a riveting two-hander that tips the scales too far in one direction before coming back around to conclude on a fairly satisfying note. 

Produced by Rian Johnson and boasting his similar knack for kinetic pacing (while containing more of an acerbic verve than any of his crowd-pleasing work), Fair Play packs an unnerving score by Brian McOmber (Krisha) and exacting cinematography from Menno Mans, our eyes always trained on precisely where Emily and Luke fall in this tangled web of egos and passion. In his first film role since 2018’s Solo, Ehrenreich displays a newfound commanding confidence. It’s a delight to see him return with a more daring project requiring a full spectrum of emotion, after weathering a disheartening blockbuster experience. Dynevor, previously finding success on TV, has a true feature breakout here, dominating the screen with the difficult task of making her name in a patriarchal boy’s club. Taking on the mantra of “don’t mix business with pleasure” to its most ludicrous conclusion, the duo are tasked with making the rise and fall of this relationship believable. They hit the mark up to a point, seeling the first part of the erotic thriller well while one-off digs arrive like a knife jab before escalating to more ridiculous turns that disappointingly teeter the two-hander clearly to one end. But Domont knows how to play her audience like a fiddle, and if the gasps and claps from the premiere are any indication, this ratcheting-up beyond believability ensures Fair Play will at least be the start of many a conversation.

Domont’s attempts to fuse the bustling big city with the psychological weight of her characters comes across too on-the-nose––we see steam rise from a pothole after an intense scene, hear a scream crossfade with the sound of a bustling subway. In this captivating pressure-cooker environment such extraneous touches make the characters feel less like fleshed-out humans and more like pawns to be bent to a writer’s will. While that may be the intention, once Domont attempts reckoning with startling moments of sexual violence it comes across as a last-minute cry for authenticity for characters who have already gone off the rails of rationality.

Fair Play premiered at Sundance 2023.

Grade: B-

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