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Erotic Workplace Thriller Fair Play Finds the Monstrousness in Male Insecurity

5 minute read

The chestnutty theme of the teenage baby-sitter who receives a phone call from a heavy breather threatening to kill her, only to learn he’s right inside the house, has stuck around for a reason. Sometimes you don’t know when danger is beyond just one closed door—or lying in bed beside you. Writer-director Chloe Domont’s skillfully constructed debut feature Fair Play is neither a horror movie nor a corporate thriller, though it bears earmarks of both, with some dashes of erotic-thriller intrigue tossed in. Mostly, though, this workplace psycho-romance traces the resentments that can asphyxiate a couple when one partner’s career escalates as the other’s falters, and it does so in the service of a bigger picture. Domont has picked up the scent of an idea that’s floating through our culture, one that’s almost too disheartening to articulate: women just don’t trust men to respect them, no matter how much lip service a guy pays to the idea of equality.

Luke and Emily, played by Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich, are one of those deeply-in-love couples who look fairly conventional but see themselves as rebels. In the movie’s opening scene, they break away from the tedium of a wedding for a bathroom quickie. There’s a moment of awkwardness thanks to menorrhea interruptus; Luke has hiked up Emily’s satin dress, the better to bury his face in her absolute self, only to pop up with blood smeared on his lips. The moment is funny, real, vaguely transgressive—not because there’s anything taboo about it, but because it's the sort of thing you don’t usually see in a movie (at least an American one). Shortly thereafter, Luke surprises Emily with an engagement ring. Her face tells us she’s not sure what to think.

That’s because both work as analysts for the same hedge-fund company, and their romance is already a breach of company rules. And though she doesn’t spell it out, you get the sense that Emily is the only one really thinking about how their respective careers will play out once they go public with their engagement—as if she knows it’s more likely that she, as the woman, will have to be the one to find a new job.

Instead, the couple’s crass, sexist boss Campbell—played, with steely authority, by Eddie Marsan—surprises Emily with a promotion, the step up that Luke had been certain he was destined for. Luke now reports to her, and though he claims to be cool with it, it’s clear his ego has suffered a bruising. It also becomes clear that she’s sharper and more flexible—and simply better at her job—than Luke. She tries to help him, though that only makes things worse. Before long, Luke’s freewheeling, offhanded confidence—a quality that probably made him seem boyishly attractive to Emily—has hardened into ugly defiance. His insecurity isn’t charming; it has a bitter, aggressive edge, and it’s the woman he supposedly loves and esteems who suffers.

Fair Play. Phoebe Dynevor as Emily in Fair Play. Cr. Slobodan Pikula / Courtesy of Netflix
Phoebe Dynevor as Emily in Fair PlaySlobodan Pikula—Netflix

Domont and her actors don’t overstate this shift; instead, they make it all too believable, as if this were the sort of everyday venom that plenty of couples live with. It helps, too, that Domont seems to understand that not all finance people—and certainly not those still on the lower rungs of the ladder—live in luxury high-rises. The couple’s modestly cozy Chinatown apartment probably costs them plenty, but it’s far from the ho-hum glass-and-steel monstrosity that the movies generally use to signal greedy ambition. Even so, these two aren’t exactly rebels. When Luke cruelly criticizes Emily’s dull work wardrobe, which she tries to make more feminine with a few random frills, you understand how these types of workplaces are more sartorially complicated for women than for men—but you also think her half-hearted ruffly silk collars probably aren’t the way to go.

Still, as Dynevor plays her, Emily is intensely sympathetic. All she ever asked for was a solid career and a reasonably happy personal life, and instead she gets this lousy boyfriend. Domont doesn’t seem to know how to end Fair Play; the movie culminates in a disastrous engagement party thrown by Emily’s family, who know nothing of the nightmare she’s living through. (They’re working-class folks from Long Island, and they can see her only as a success story.) The movie doesn’t need that kind of dramatic overkill; what Emily suffers is horrifying enough.

Ehrenreich plays Luke as one of those anonymous, likable guys that women end up marrying all the time, but even from the start, there’s something smirky and entitled about him. Emily is too much in love to see it—that, too, probably happens all the time. Are modern men, raised in an era when it’s been drummed into them that they must respect women, better than the old-school models? Or have the truly bad ones simply learned more tricks, cloaking their misogyny in the language of respect? Fair Play doesn’t make a pronouncement either way, though it does subtly suggest that these types of hidden resentments within dual-career couples are more common than we like to think. And that’s what makes it more a horror movie than anything else. The guy is cute, he’s ambitious, and he’s offering you an engagement ring. What’s not to love? Maybe plenty.

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