'Fair Play': A Gripping Thriller That Mixes Business and Pleasure
The world of finance has been the background for a number of films and TV shows over the years, such as Wall Street, Boiler Room, and The Wolf of Wall Street, to name a few. For the most part, financial dramas like these take on a more masculine view into the lives of stockbrokers and investment bankers, and typically reduce their female characters to love interests, eye candy, or hinderances to live their extravagant lives. With Chloe Domont's debut feature, Fair Play, however, she flips the script on these types of films by having the film be from a woman's point of view, and showing more meager lifestyles as opposed to the hedonistic, indulgent ones we are accustomed to seeing. Furthermore, the film is more focused on the relationship between its two main characters, and the toxicity between them. The result is a film that recalls the erotic thrillers of the late 80s and early 90s, and paints a gritty, intense picture of life working at a hedge fund.
Emily and Luke (Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich, respectively) are a young couple who work at a cutthroat hedge fund in New York City. They keep their personal lives separate from their professional ones, as no one else at their work knows that they are even together. After Luke proposes to Emily, and a promotion at the hedge fund comes into play, it creates a wedge in their relationship. This shifts the power dynamics between them, and threatens to unravel the careful lives they've made for themselves.
The level of intimacy that this film reaches is almost uncomfortable, as it almost feels like we shouldn't be seeing much of the action that is unfolding. This is predominantly felt in the scenes between Dynevor and Ehrenreich, but it extends to the scenes at the hedge fund as well. There are a handful of moments where Chloe Domont pulls no punches, especially in the film's dialogue, which is rather sharp and realistic for the most part. The film as a whole does tiptoe toward melodrama in the third act, becoming pulpier and darker than I was expecting it to, but it does allow the film to hit its endpoint more effectively as a result. I don't fully agree with the means it takes to reach that point, as there is a specific narrative choice that I'm not sure the film needs to make the statement it is going for. However, I do think the writing as a whole is quite impressive, especially in how Domont writes the characters and their dialogue.
I do have some nitpicks with the plotting, especially in the back half where it begins to feel repetitive. This section features multiple arguments between Dynevor and Ehrenreich's characters, and it just feels like they are fighting about the same things over and over again. If there was one or two fewer scenes like this, I think it might have helped the second half of the film flow a little better. There's just only so many times you can see two characters yell about the same things before it gets stale, and this film comes very close to that territory. Thankfully, it ends on a rather audacious note, driving the film's ideas of power home in an ending that took me aback. It ends with fearlessness that is present in some of the film's best moments, and is one of the things that really ties this film together. It may make some bold choices that don't always work, but I appreciate the risks Domont takes, as they pay off more often than not.
The thematic elements are what really stood out to me, as the film is rather blunt and effective in how it portrays misogyny, toxic relationships, and power dynamics. The rough treatment that the character of Emily experiences at various points in the film is discomforting, mainly due to how these scenes capture the honesty of the situations she is in. I appreciate that the film doesn't treat Emily as a martyr, or infantilize her either, and instead portrays her as complex and morally grey. I love films where almost none of the characters come across as good people, and this film definitely fits that bill. Every single one of the characters in this film do horrible things, and it really challenges the viewer in terms of whether or not their actions are justified. This, in addition to the shifting power dynamics between the characters, and how the film gender-swaps certain ideas and tropes commonly seen in financial dramas, are some its strongest assets, and are explored rather well.
The film has a rather cold look to it, which helps with the tense environment that it cultivates. It is rather simple in how it uses the camera, but the simplicity does work rather well in certain moments. Chief among these is the final shot, which might not be anything revolutionary, but it is a decisive and strong shot that sums up the film perfectly. I always love when films can make the tiniest moments have a massive impact, and this film is chock full of them. This mostly comes through in the performances, but there is such a focus on the smaller details of these characters lives that comes out in the way certain scenes are shot and blocked. It's a small element, but one that really stuck with me as I've been processing the film.
The chemistry between Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich is electric in the earlier segments of the film, both capturing the sensuality between their characters and the tension that arises between them. Dynevor is not an actor I'm too familiar with, as I've only seen her on the show Bridgerton prior to watching this film. While I enjoyed her work on that show, I am so thrilled to see her take on a more complex role like the one she plays here. It takes a very talented actor to be able to make the audience sympathize with you one second and then repulse them the next, and Dynevor pulls this off with aplomb. Ehrenreich is an actor who I've been wanting to see more of, as I have always enjoyed his work. Between this and his role in Oppenheimer, it appears that he is on a bit of a comeback, and I am here for it. He has the showiest role in the film, as his character is prone to yelling and making a scene, but Ehrenreich handles it with care and keeps it from coming on too strong. I really appreciated how expressive he was in certain moments, as it complements his subtler acting choices so well. Both him and Dynvenor are fantastic here, and I sincerely hope that we see much more of them in the future.
The film's cast is a bit small, but everyone in this film is solid across the board. Sebastian de Souza absolutely nails the douchey finance bro persona of his character, Rory, and portrays him rather naturally. It is so easy for an actor to turn a role like this into a cartoon, but de Souza wisely resists this. Rich Sommer has a more neutral role, as he is, for lack of a better term, the "least bad" of the people at the hedge fund. His character, Paul, is not a good guy by any means, but he isn't nearly as acidic as any of the other characters in the film. Sommer gives a very measured performance, putting forth just the right amount of smarminess to balance out with more jovial demeanor he has for much of the film. But it's Eddie Marsan who really stood out to me, as he is able to convey so much power and authority with just a look. Marsan is the right type to play Campbell, the boss of Emily and Luke, as he is able to tap into his penchant for playing volatile characters, and uses this as a simmering rage that underlines everything he does in this film. There is a precision to the way he plays this character, as he maintains a steely facade all throughout the film, and making subtle choices that end up speaking volumes. It's perhaps the one performance outside of Dynevor and Ehrenreich's that truly grabbed me, as Marsan's screen presence is so magnetic.
Fair Play is both a thrilling throwback to the pulpy erotic thrillers of the 90s, and also a tense drama that touches on power dynamics, gender in the workplace, and toxic relationships. It is one of the more impressive debuts I've seen in a while, as it is such a potent blend of realism and melodrama, and captures such a specific level of intimacy that some filmmakers wouldn't touch with a twenty-foot pole. It does go in circles for a bit in the third act, but it ends on such a strong note that it makes up for this a little. It's the type of film that has grown with me the more I sit and think on it, and I am very curious to see where Chloe Domont's career goes from here. This film is quite gripping in ways I wasn't expecting, and it certainly leaves a lasting impression.
Fair Play releases in select theaters September 29 and on Netflix October 6, 2023.