Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich star in Chloe Domont’s Fair Play, a tightly wound bruise of a film that grows uglier to look at as time passes. A corporate thriller and exercise in unearthing the fragility of the male ego, there’s little levity beyond the opening scene which finds Dynevor’s Emily and Ehrenreich’s Luke blissfully in love. They can’t get enough of one another, can’t keep their hands off of one another, and paint the picture of young and attractive success as they work their demanding hedge fund jobs. That aforementioned ugliness doesn’t waste any time in announcing itself though, as Emily receives a promotion that Luke wanted, believes he deserves, and spirals as a result.
Written and directed by Domont, the film does well by fooling us, however momentarily, that at its core their relationship is built to last. We’re introduced to the two in an act of playful lust that has them crawling out windows to escape a wedding post their own bathroom engagement, him carrying her bridal style since she left her shoes behind. His drawl, her beauty – they are picture-perfect, something we’ve seen fall to pieces before in other films. To its credit, Fair Play goes aggressive in its destabilizing of the core relationship, forgoing the use of a hint or a nudge when a sledgehammer can wreak as much havoc.
Despite the heightened emotions that consume the characters both within their relationship and, in Emily’s case, moments where she’s belittled by her boss or asked to play the role of “one of the guys,” it never comes across as overwrought. The (extremely unenviable) hustle of this lifestyle and the stress that comes from working in high-stakes finance is adequately conveyed from the first moments as the two get ready to head to work well before the sun has even risen. When a co-worker is fired and explodes into a rage-fueled fit, a fellow member of the team jokes that he thought “he was going to jump.” That same outburst is buried by the sound of a harassment class where the solution is to turn the volume up and draw the blinds so they won’t have to witness it.
There’s a sterile effect to the entire look of the film, captured with crisp lines and overpowering effects by cinematographer Menno Mans. There’s beauty and life in the city that surrounds them, but they’re never able to see it as they shepherd themselves from home to the office, to the bar for drinks with coworkers to further sell higher-ups on their worth. Rest is devalued, sex is a bargaining chip, and love is but an obstacle.
Unable to maintain the energy it builds too, there are moments and sequences that go on for too long as we watch Emily and Luke continue to undermine and insult one another. Despite strong performances and an impossible-to-look-away story, the film needed to use its time to better establish Luke’s descent. Because it’s not that it’s unbelievable – it’s that by allowing a more seamless transition the big moments would have landed with greater impact.
For the most part, though, Domont, Dynevor, and Ehrenreich paint a compelling portrait that tackles gender imbalance both in the workplace but also at home. Dynevor initially rides high on her win, wanting to treat Luke and help him the way she thinks he’s helped her. But it doesn’t take long for Luke’s brain to be poisoned, for him to believe that what she earned was a handout and even possibly some infidelity with the company boss, Campbell (Eddie Marsan.) He aims low and weaponizes her insecurities, planting seeds of doubt about how she dresses and behaves. He’s only trying to help her, promise.
It’s the type of thing women have grown accustomed to either suffering through or de-escalating. Watch as she wars with herself over how she words a simple question. It’s these insights that offer some of the cleverest writing in the script, especially as Emily begins to adopt the stories and attitudes of her male coworkers for the sake of keeping her spot as one of the bigger players.
Dynevor and Ehrenreich are both strong if slightly miscast, something that only comes to light in later scenes as both are asked to gradually enhance their characters’ worst tendencies. Dynevor certainly works best as the steely-eyed working woman who wears her confidence and intelligence as armor, while Ehrenreich is more convincing while he’s playing the role of charming and roguish boyfriend (I guess the Solo casting was never really that bad at all.) They make for a captivating duo but never reach the full heights the script has lain out for them.
A no-nonsense story that takes a scalpel to harsh work environments and the character’s toxic need for control, Fair Play reaches its final destination with grit and grime. As hollow as the story may feel, it’s elevated by an abundance of dark wit and style.
Featured Image Courtesy of Sundance Institute