In the first scene of the punchy Sundance thriller Fair Play, a New York couple, Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) and Emily (the Bridgerton breakout Phoebe Dynevor), are covered in blood. They’re at his brother’s wedding and are so desperately in heat for one another that they soon find themselves in the bathroom, him performing oral sex before group photos are taken. But Emily is on her period and between cleaning themselves off and laughing at the unfortunate timing, a ring falls out of Luke’s pocket and suddenly they’re engaged. A marriage forged in blood.
It’s no real spoiler to say that it’s a nasty omen of what’s to come, the writer-director Chloe Domont’s ruthless, and ruthlessly entertaining, feature debut taking a happy young couple and throwing them into chaos. There’s something darkly gratifying about that formula, one we haven’t seen as much of recently but that dominated the 80s and 90s. While there’s a definite throwback vibe to Fair Play, Domont isn’t interested in merely repeating what’s come before.
Luke and Emily don’t just live together – they also work together as analysts in the high-stakes and high-pressure world of finance, forced to abide by company policy and keep their relationship secret. When a job opens up above them, Emily is thrilled to hear whispers that it might be going to Luke. But when it ultimately ends up hers, the couple is forced into a difficult situation. With the tables turned, Luke finds it harder to support her success and the pair start to unravel.
With a delicacy that more genre films aiming to tackle weightier topics could afford to emulate, Domont cooly constructs a contemporary story about how a gendered disparity in finance and power can wreck a seemingly successful relationship. Emily’s new position is a threat to Luke, to his self-worth and to his masculinity, and it tears at them both, following them back from the office to the bedroom. Back in 1994, the corporate thriller Disclosure posited that the only thing scarier than a woman scorned was a woman scorned who was also your boss, painting a laughably dated portrait of the evils of having women climb the corporate ladder. Fair Play, while recalling many a Michael Douglas thriller from Fatal Attraction to A Perfect Murder, is a smart rebuke to such misogyny. The biggest threat here ends up being a man’s ego.
But Domont also avoids blunting or over-stacking her story, allowing both characters to make wrong moves along the way, with some of Emily’s decisions far from unimpeachable. Bristling tension arises from the small stuff that starts to become unavoidably big, rather than an over-reliance on farfetched plot developments, a sleekly modulated balance of domestic and corporate thrills that mostly feel believably grounded. It’s a film of many, many high-volume arguments but Dynevor and Ehrenreich remarkably avoid even the slightest sign of histrionic excess, expertly carrying over their sexual chemistry to the couple’s more horrible moments – a pair you buy in moments of love as much as you do in moments of hate. Both performances are exceptionally effective, with Ehrenreich returning from his post-Solo slump to remind us why he was seen as the Next Best Thing way back when and Dynevor, a relative newcomer to film, at least, possessing the kind of confident command that should elevate her to the A-list in no time.
Workplace narratives adjacent to this have been relegated to television (there are obvious comparisons to the work-life tension in the equally horny and treacherous world of Industry) but it’s refreshing to see a story such as this self-contained within two hours. There are the odd bits of dead weight (Luke’s obsession with a self-help business guru proving a little clunky) and there’s likely to be some impassioned discussion over one particularly troubling scene in the last act, but Domont ends with a fantastic drop-the-mic moment that had the audience here at Sundance enthusiastically applauding.
Sundance is a competitive market festival and with the film still seeking a buyer, one can expect a fierce bidding war. This one is a winner.