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The first sound you hear in the extraordinary relationship thriller/psychodrama “Fair Play”? It’s the lingering roar of the rocket writer-director Chloe Domont is about to launch into space to tear through gendered power dynamics, male-dominated beats of a high-wired workplace and masculine fragility.
In reality, it’s a moan you hear, from none other than Donna Summer at the start of her sultry song “Love to Love You.” Yes, you’re supposed to feel a subtle erotic vibe—the song choice, in that regard, is anything but subtle to kickstart seasoned TV director Domont’s simmering and gradually explosive feature debut.
Before we know it, Emily and Luke find themselves in the bathroom of a wedding party following in the song’s footsteps, to get it on in a hurry. Played with volatile precision by Phoebe Dynevor (“Bridgerton”) and Alden Ehrenreich (“Oppenheimer”), the two are desperately into each other’s sexuality, draped over one another in ecstasy. Soon, we spot Emily’s period blood all over Luke’s mouth, a crimson clue for the bloodbath that is about to erupt elsewhere. A second later, he puts a ring on it to make it official: they are now an ambitious and engaged power couple in finance and madly in love.
The visual coherence and warm color palette choices Domont favors in the film’s arresting opening sequence continue throughout “Fair Play.” This is a purposely dimly lit but crystal-clear film. And there is a mounting claustrophobia to it, giving the sense of a cozily candlelit room that becomes a touch too hot around you after that second glass of wine that you perhaps should have reconsidered.
And that’s not far off from what Emily experiences throughout Domont’s story after she lands the promotion that Luke has been going for at the firm they both work for. But they are a modern-day New York couple, after all. What’s Luke to do if not genuinely support Emily for getting ahead in the painfully male-dominated world of finance?
Of course, the truth proves to be several shades darker throughout “Fair Play,” that draws both from gritty ‘70s urban thrillers with its pace, and a touch from the ‘90s erotic thrillers with Domont’s sensual camera choices that pierce through undercurrents of power plays between men and women. Slowly, Luke turns sour, not knowing what to do with his newfound male insecurities in an environment and society that expects the impossible from his kind, and Emily can do nothing but tiptoe around it.
Both Dynevor and Ehrenreich are superb in their characters’ respective fights. Dynevor especially crafts a towering performance, calibrating and recalibrating Emily’s inner world, reactions, anger and heartbreak against Luke’s constantly shifting attitudes. The supporting cast, consisting of the likes of Eddie Marsan as a very convincing finance tycoon, Rich Sommer of “Mad Men” in a very different office setting, Sia Alipour and Sebastian De Souza also make for a stellar ensemble through which Emily has to learn how to fake an image like she’s one of the boys.
When “Fair Play” premiered in Sundance (and, to this critic, instantly became one of the most confident debuts of the indie festival’s recent history), there was an exasperating debate around it, with some deeming Emily and Luke as equally problematic in their behavior. That discourse was frustrating, partly because it misunderstood Domont’s intentions towards crafting a thriller around the deeply flawed humanity of people in tough situations.
But it was mostly frustrating because it failed to grasp that while Domont’s screenplay shows Luke enough grace to understand his feelings, it never once excuses his devastatingly poor behavior or holds Emily responsible for wanting to survive in her life and job as a woman who’s fairly earned what she’s got.
That’s the genius of “Fair Play”—having its principles and morals straight without pandering to the audience through cheapened toxic masculinity tropes. Aiding Domont’s thematic unassailability on the page is a boundlessly well-realized production design—the couple’s dingy apartment is almost its own character—and Emily’s refined costuming that splits the difference between traditionally feminine and authoritative.
What’s perhaps most miraculous about this tight and taut film is Domont’s unforgiving economy. There isn’t a single expendable moment in Domont’s gradually escalating, fiery ride that eventually explodes at Luke and Emily’s engagement party—a truly painful sequence of sexual assault Domont films with utmost dexterity and sensitivity—and ends on an emotional scream. It’s dazzling work.
Netflix releases “Fair Play” will play in limited release September 29 and stream on October 6.
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