All is not fair in love and war and finance. In fact, it’s ugly, cruel, sexy, and trashy.
Writer/director Chloe Domont’s vicious assault on ambition, attraction, masculinity, and you-go-girl feminism, “Fair Play” goes off like a bomb laced with the explosive and dually depraved chemistry of leads Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich. They play a New York couple who can’t keep their hands off each other. They also both work in finance. They also happen to work at the same investment firm, yet none of their colleagues knows about their elaborate and longstanding violation of company policy. What starts as one movie on the surface, a sort of refresh on the psychosexual thrillers of the 1980s spearheaded by the likes of Adrian Lyne and since all but dead in Hollywood, then slithers into another perhaps more reminiscent of HBO’s finance episodic “Industry,” then another, and another. By the final jaw-dislocating cut to black, you’ll have no idea what just thwacked you.
When we first meet Emily (Dynevor) and Luke (Ehrenreich), they’re at a wedding of his relatives and decide to sneak off to the bathroom to discretely fuck. Here’s something you’ve probably never seen before in a mainstream American movie: After Luke goes down on Emily and passionately kisses her, they both realize she’s on her period, and suddenly their formalwear is slathered in menstrual blood. “We look like we slaughtered a chicken.” But there’s more. An engagement ring has fallen out of Luke’s pocket, and so he gets down on his knees, slathered in her blood, and asks her to marry him. She says, of course, I do.
That’s just the beginning of Emily and Luke’s fucked-up odyssey, and it sets the stage for the twisted relationship arc that follows and even for a much-later scene also set in a bathroom during the movie’s cracked coda. If you don’t have a head for finance, the heady machinations of a cutthroat financial firm may leave you in the cold, but no matter: Stay for the loopy power games between Emily and Luke. They’re both analysts at Crest Capital, ensconced in a gleaming, glassy financial district Manhattan high-rise that’s mainly a boys’ club, but one where grown men cry. During a mandatory workplace conduct training session, one poor analyst who’s seemingly lost the company millions has a breakdown in the next office, wailing into the void as he destroys his computer and desk with a golf club. So much for his certificate of compliance.
When Emily overhears a rumor that Luke is up for a promotion to take his place, she doesn’t appear to be threatened at all. Instead, she literally showers him with love and attention and sex and champagne. (These two haven’t found a surface on which they couldn’t get it on.) But that’s all spun upside down when, after being summoned to a dark bar at 2 A.M. by firm president Campbell (a brilliantly insidious Eddie Marsan), it turns out Emily is the one who’s being promoted to PM, or portfolio manager. (You’ll be forgiven for not keeping up with all the film’s zippy jargon, as Domont is less trying to pull one over you than fully embed you in this meticulously researched world.)
This news sends their relationship hurtling toward a crashing breaking point, as Luke fails to hide just how emasculated he is by the turn of events. Ehrenreich is skillful at eliciting our sympathies for Luke in ways that, even for the writer/director, surprise: He’s not the easily-projected-upon silhouette of a toxic man but instead more complicated, pathetic, at times hot, sniveling, unctuous, and sad. Emily, electrified by her new status, now swans into the office on a company black car, calls the shots, and even picks the strip clubs where she and her finance-bro colleagues party hard. (That bunch is a perfectly cast gaggle led by Sebastian De Souza, Rich Sommer, Sia Alipour, and Jamie Wilkes.) But life on the homefront is shifting out from under her. Her harping mother won’t stop calling about planning an engagement party, and Luke has stopped having sex with her.
Luke starts to fuck up at work, risking big on a portfolio that winds up costing the company $25 million, only for Emily to swoop in with a money-making unicorn of her own. The epic degradation of Luke’s masculine artifice that follows — Ehrenreich has such perfectly creepy “Jack Nicholson in ‘The Shining’ eyes” — defies easy explanation. And the sexual fumes Emily seems to huff off his despair are, well, very much aligned with the Luke and Emily mid-coitus we saw in the film’s first scene.
Emily is capable of getting nasty too, and she may look nice-girl, porcelain-doll on the outside, but that’s soon shattered. “You dress like a fucking cupcake,” Luke hurls, but she has far more devastating arrows in her quiver. That said, Domont’s direction and script never parallel our sympathies to one over the other — and, in fact, often at once we are repulsed, confounded, turned on by the messy manipulations bubbling between them. “Fair Play” argues that ambition and desire are one in the same, and equally capable of destruction. You might find yourself rooting for Emily and Luke in the same sentence — until, of course, you aren’t. And when Emily spews at Luke lines like, “I’ll save your career if you eat my pussy,” you don’t know whether to laugh, cheer, wince, or duck under your seat because you know what’s coming.
The filmmaking is slickly brutal to match Domont’s ever-shifting allegiances, with the austere outsides photographed by Menno Mans matching the cold insides of the people onscreen. Yet for all its moments set in corporate spaces and places devoid of all life, there’s hot blood running under “Fair Play,” which has at least one more profoundly debasing sex scene to match the not-so-cold open. By the end of this steamy, razor-wired, barking-mad movie — you’ll understand that last bit once you see it — you realize that these two deserve each other, and we’re more than happy to merrily go to hell with them.
“Fair Play” world-premiered in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution. The film is produced by Star Thrower Entertainment alongside MRC and T-Street.