FAIR PLAY (2023)
An unexpected promotion at a cutthroat hedge fund pushes a young couple's relationship to the brink, threatening to unravel far more than their recent engagement.
Power dynamics, specifically within corporate frameworks, have steadily become ripe subject material for filmmakers looking to make a mark in mainstream media. Whether that be through examinations of corporate harassment—as seen in The Assistant (2019) and She Said (2022), HBO’s hugely successful drama Succession, or searing social critiques such as Dark Waters (2019)—corporate environments have become battlegrounds for the mind, fraught with constant tension. The endless array of moving parts (cutthroat hierarchical competition, the relentless pursuit of profit, an entirely alien set of social norms) also comes loaded with dramatic intrigue, begging filmmakers to make good use of the powder-keg paranoia and viciousness boiling within every cog in the machine.
Enter writer-director Chloe Domont, whose debut feature Fair Play wields every piece of the corporate puzzle in a specifically gendered context to edge-of-your-seat effect. It’s a film of intense confidence on two levels: in taking its story to deranged places and in the cast and crew’s ability to execute it on a precise wavelength. Among many things, Fair Play is primarily a balancing act, measuredly checking the pulse of its narrative suspense before ratcheting things up to a fine line between plausible yet insane and completely off-the-rails. In other words, it’s a film that deals with logical extremes. One that deliberately seems to exchange quietly subdued nuance to depict the absolutes of gendered power dynamics instead when they’re pushed to their absolute limit.
At the centre of Fair Play‘s lit-fuse narrative re Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich), two analysts in New York hedge fund One Crest Capital, who are so deeply infatuated we open on the sight of them having passionate sex in the bathroom during Luke’s brother’s wedding. In defiance of company policy, they’ve been hiding their relationship while living in the same city apartment, and in the heat of passion, Emily discovers Luke’s carried a diamond ring with him to the party. Seconds later, he haphazardly proposes to her, and they promptly get engaged, the first in a chain of events that contributes to the narrative’s rising tensions.
The next chain involves Emily and Luke’s standings in One Crest Capital. They’ve never quite seen each other as competitors, given their nearly equal standing, but all of that’s about to change when Emily receives a late-night invite to a high-end bar from the hedge fund’s CEO, Campbell (Eddie Marsan), who informs her over a drink that she’s been promoted to a new portfolio manager. But various factors make this promotion both unusual and foreboding; Emily isn’t only a woman taking on a position occupied almost always by men, but she previously heard whisperings and rumours of Luke being promoted… something she told him about soon after she gleaned this information. The moment she comes back to their apartment, she tells Luke, “I’m sorry”, and Luke can only follow up with a tersely veiled “I’m so happy for you. Okay?”
The ensuing weeks and months are made of a series of escalating hurdles. While Emily has to contend with her new rank’s slew of responsibilities and pressures, Luke stews in indignant emasculation to the point of nigh-insanity. For nearly every minute she’s in her own office, its glass walls exposing her to her male co-worker’s gazes, Emily finds herself risking her career on calls that influence major financial decisions for companies and investors, in which one wrong slip could devastate everything. Meanwhile, Luke’s crusade to upstage his fiancée leads him down a road of drastically reduced libido, a newfangled obsession with a masculine Petersonian self-help guru, and resentment that leaks through the pores of his seemingly apathetic expressions.
Speaking of libido—worth mentioning is the frequent mislabeling of Fair Play as an “erotic thriller,” in which the film’s erotic and thriller-adjacent elements have been used in tandem to label it as something it doesn’t quite reach. A Brian De Palma or Paul Verhoeven movie this is most certainly not, as Domont elects to instead focus on dealing in extremes so long as it feels like a natural extension of her narrative’s gendered power play.
Fair Play largely deals in absolutes; the oppressive oversight Emily constantly finds herself under doesn’t loosen once throughout the movie, while Luke’s insecure craving for superiority leads to moments of genuine humiliation that still fail to deter him from tearing down everything around him. At several points, this is an efficiently mean-spirited film, insisting on a yes-all-men worldview that frames toxic masculinity as an inescapable pressure cooker for the unfortunate souls who descend, willfully or not, into its infernal pot.
To that end, Dynevor and Ehrenreich anchor the film firmly to its thematic purpose and tonal control. The film rarely diverts from Emily’s perspective, giving Dynevor a chance to insert various contradictions into Emily’s character that present a frustrating yet deeply earnest vision of the fragility of female authority, especially when bestowed in a male-dominated world and worldview.
One second, Emily is fighting for a chance to stand up for herself, working around additional hurdles and expectations to uniquely prove her worth to Campbell and her superiors. The next, she’s indulging in the after-hours exploits of her male co-workers, hitting up bars and strip clubs with the same degree of abandon after long days in front of monitors. As for Luke (who may come across for some as the lesser-baked character in the mix), Ehrenreich still makes an impressive effort to ensure that Luke’s emasculation is more sinister than obvious, lacing sleazy quantities of passive-aggression and barely hidden rage until all of it comes roaring out.
Once it does roar out, Fair Play doesn’t let up. After spending nearly 90-minutes under Domont’s watchful eye, paired with visceral sound design and Menno Mans’s slickly moving cinematography, the stakes begin to let loose to incredible effect. As each domino in the chain falls, the resulting collapse both defies the civility mandated by One Crest’s policy, yet feels inevitable as a result of how oppressive that civility is to begin with. And of course, One Crest’s environment only serves as an institutionalized extension of the masculine norms imposed in most workplace cultures.
Emily and Luke are at the whims of a corporate hierarchy that, by its nature, exacerbates the socially normative forces holding them down and causing their resentments to fester so deeply. Wall Street and its hedge funds hold as much influence as they do because of how economically pivotal they are to every US institution. Barely anyone of significant influence in Wall Street is unaware, or more importantly, unashamed, of the power they wield—as well as the power they hope to wield.
What Fair Play lacks in deeper insight and complexity, it makes up for with riveting control of tension, as well as a narrative world built on absolutes and logical extremes. The primary rule of cinematic suspense is that you know that a bomb is about to go off and that the characters are unaware of its inevitable explosion. But the film is also well aware that even the nature of the explosion becomes unpredictable—who gets hurt more by it, how they might be injured in the flames, who might even notice that the bomb is there before it goes off, and so on. Above all else, Domont knows that institutionalized toxic masculinity and the cutthroat hierarchies of corporate Wall Street make for a profoundly flammable mix… and that all it takes to set the fuse off is a single spark.
USA | 2023 | 113 MINUTES | 2.35:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH
writer & director: Chloe Domont.
starring: Phoebe Dynevor, Alden Ehrenreich, Eddie Marsan, Rich Sommer & Sebastian De Souza.