For her directorial debut, Chloe Dumont dissects the intricacies at play of one couple’s power struggle. Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) are the recently engaged pair at the center of Fair Play. The two are employed at the same hedge fund management firm, where their relationship is kept secret, since it is at odds with company policy. Once the stage is set, Dumont lights the kilometric fuse that will slowly burn its way towards tons of dynamite waiting to spectacularly explode.
The spark is lit when Emily is promoted to PM or portfolio manager of the firm. Around the office, the widely spread rumor was that Luke was next in line to receive said promotion. When his fiancé is given the position instead, it hurls both down a path that will challenge both their personal and working relationship in more ways than one.
Luke’s masculinity has been threatened. He begins partaking in typical troublesome behavior related to male insecurities, including but not limited to hurling verbal and physical abuse towards Emily. At first, this behavior is delivered by often subtle and cowardly means, but never less problematic. By the end, his ways carry devastating consequences. Interestingly, Dumont does not portray Luke as a stereotypical “dude bro” one would associate with financial brokers in New York City. This distinction indicates that toxic masculinity comes in many forms and that the threat of emasculation is not reserved for a select few.
Emily is almost apologetic for her success at first. She vows to use her position and increasing influence with her boss (Eddie Marsan) to help Luke move up the corporate ladder at the firm. Feeling further emasculated by his fiancé’s promise, he distances himself from Emily. Her continued success leads Luke down a destructive path, slowly devolving their relationship.
The story seems straightforward at first. But Dumont is too clever to put forward a typical erotic thriller that, on the surface, seems to be more at home during the 80’s and 90’s airing on the Lifetime Movie Channel. Dumont offers enough nuance to steer clear of the dreadful purgatory and drives everyone involved straight to hell. She colors the narrative palette with enough gray to blur the lines between all the scenarios at play. What starts as a hardly distinguishable pointing of fingers erupts into a devastating and violent emotional tug-of-war between the two. For every jab that Luke delivers, Emily comes back with one of her own. Each traded hit results, for better or for worse, in a gradual reversal of the gender tropes. When the bout is over, Dumont refrains from declaring a clear winner.
Other creative choices add layers to the film as well. The most intimate moments, both amorous and violent, occur in private, closed spaces. One of these moments further blurs the line between the loving and the violent. As any erotic thriller would, Dumont also includes many sex scenes. These are never gratuitous or superfluous, as they mirror the narrative arc at the point they are presented. In a disturbing “full circle” moment, the first and last of the coital occurrences draw blood for disturbing and different reasons. In fact, every device employed in Fair Play carries its own evolution. Every scene reflects the ongoing character transformations. Suspense is aptly created by clever use of sound. Groaning and moaning, not always related to sex, echo from its point of origination into the following scene. The uneasy reverberations complement the increasingly difficult-to-watch images.
Netflix paid a hefty sum for the rights to Fair Play after it premiered at Sundance earlier this year, undoubtedly due in part to Dumont’s confident direction and its young stars’ performances. Strikingly bringing Luke and Emily to life are Alden Ehrenreich and Phoebe Dynevor. Ehrenreich has never been better, balancing Luke’s subdued frustration with his eventual volatile undoing. Dyvenor magnificently navigates Emily’s transformation from an innocent bystander to unhinged psychosis. As a pair, their performance expertly takes a page from Hoffman and Streep in Kramer vs. Kramer or more recently Driver and Johansson in Marriage Story.
Fair Play is an impressive debut for Dumont. However, not everything works well. The slow tension building will test patience. Pacing is an issue, as the reins from this crescendo are pulled back awkwardly while on its way to the coda. Once tension boils over, the results are spectacular, but flirt with being too ridiculous. One detonation is not enough. Dumont keeps them coming, with the devastation and believability behaving like the laws of supply and demand. The Wall Street backdrop also ends up paying no dividends. The business world has been extensively explored by recent entertainment media to where Fair Play falls short of bringing out the potential for depravity these settings usually offer. This could have added layers to further complicate the couple’s dynamic, but instead ends up being a distraction.
Nonetheless, Fair Play does have much good to offer. Dumont’s analysis of the transformative effects power, entitlement, greed, and ambition can have on an individual and their relationships is a gutsy swing for the fences. In the hands of lesser actors, the evolutionary arc of these characters could have fallen flat. The right crew barely saves the uneven albeit intriguing set up. Although Dumont’s initial play tops out at fair, it does leave audiences excited for her next move.