What’s the last truly terrific erotic thriller you saw? Go ahead and think about it. I’ll wait.
Slim pickings, right? I think I’d have to go back to Michael Haneke’s 2001 French film THE PIANO TEACHER, or perhaps Brian De Palma’s Femme Fatale a year later. (I dug LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER on Netflix last year, but that wasn’t truly a thriller…though it was thrilling.) Suffice it to say, such films are a rare breed these days. Sure, many filmmakers have tried this century, but the likes of DEEP WATER, DECEPTION, and IN THE CUT have been utter duds. It’s hard to combine sex, danger, and stars with erotic chemistry. But just when you wonder if anyone can reach the zenith of the 80s and 90s and create a new BODY HEAT or BASIC INSTINCT, along comes FAIR PLAY and it truly thrills.
FAIR PLAY just premiered on Netflix after a two-week run in theaters and it’s remarkably smart, stimulating, and its sense of danger will keep you on the edge of your seat. It also has two terrific actors – Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich – in the lead roles and their chemistry is palpable. They never falter, nor does the script. I kept waiting for the twists to turn dumb, but they never did. I kept waiting for one of the two characters to lose my sympathy, but they kept me invested right up to the end. And I kept worrying that the ending would be bland and boring, but boy, is it a doozie! So is the entire film.
The story concerns two hedge-fund managers playing for keeps in the high-pressure world of Wall Street finance. Emily (Dynevor) and Luke (Ehrenreich) are both ambitious financial analysts working for the firm One Crest Capital. They’re also lovers but they keep that fact a secret as their company forbids any such inner-company relationships. Luke endangers them even more when he proposes marriage at his brother’s wedding. To commemorate her answer of “yes” they retreat to the ladies’ room to have some on-the-sink sex. Their passion is curbed, however, when Emily gets her period and the blood stains their clothing. It’s the first of many sly symbols that writer/director Chloe Domont employs throughout. Indeed, bloodletting will return, both the physical and metaphorical kind.
Emily and Luke live together too, threatening to expose them as well, but the couple keeps it on the down-low, not to mention they refrain from interactions of any significance inside or outside their business circles. Then one day, One Crest’s tyrannical CEO Campell (a wonderfully sour Eddie Marsan) fires a PM with such vitriol that the poor employee is left a sobbing shambles by the humiliation. Soon, Emily overhears a coworker gossiping that Luke is to be named as the replacement, and at home she and Luke celebrate with potent dirty talk and enviable carnality.
But not long after, Emily is the one who’s promoted to the PM job. She is handed it by Campbell after he summons her to a late-night rendezvous at a bar, much to the chagrin of the left-at-home Luke. Upon her return, Luke is surprised but still excited for her. Still, his male insecurity gets the best of him when he questions whether Campbell called her so late to try to take her to bed after promoting her. Emily lets the slur to her reputation wash off her back, but it triggers a growing rift between them.
Luke’s confidence continues to erode as he’s taken aback by having to follow her orders at work, let alone hear his fellow analysts talk trash about their new boss. It starts to lead Luke to cool toward his fiancee and it isn’t long before he’s rejecting her lovemaking attempts. At one point, while trying to seduce him, Emily sexily complains that she’ll have to take care of herself if he’s unwilling, and the blitheless Luke merely tottles off to bed to sleep. She’s left wanting and worried that he’s abandoning her.
To relate any more of Domont’s clever machinations to you would be to ruin the fun to be had watching it all unspool. But suffice it to say, she keeps the tensions high, the business details vivid, and the arcs of the characters compelling and quite believable. Domont also isn’t afraid to savage Wall Street or the insecure men it attracts, yet all of her eviscerations are wickedly funny.
Ehrenreich continues to demonstrate that he’s one of our best actors in his 30s, and Dynevor is an absolute revelation here. The British actress not only does a perfect American accent here, but she gives a performance of such range that it should be on the short list of best actress consideration this year. Domont keeps her story tight, the focus on the characters, and never traffics in gratuitous nudity. She even manages to create a vivid supporting cast that comes across for maximum effect within minimal screen time.
FAIR PLAY is the kind of small, shrewd film that is almost never seen in our modern high-concept entertainment times, but I hope it encourages Netflix to make more such films. This one can take its place next to other exemplary examinations of contemporary couples in the last few years, including Hulu’s sublime miniseries NORMAL PEOPLE and Netflix’s taut drama THE DIPLOMAT. FAIR PLAY is that good and I recommend you watch it as soon as possible.