Partway through “Fair Play,” the wickedly entertaining debut feature from writer-director Chloe Domont, Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) stumbles into her apartment, giddy from a late night of partying with colleagues. After listing off the types of food she considered grabbing on her way home — a slice of pizza? tacos? falafel gyro? — she exclaims to her fiancé, Luke (Alden Ehrenreich), “How great is New York? You can have whatever you want, all the time.”
This manic, all-or-nothing Manhattan attitude is at the frosty heart of “Fair Play,” a blistering crowdpleaser that nails a tricky balance of merciless humor and psychological complexity. Starting with a relatively simple premise, the movie sets out to examine how men and women in heterosexual relationships jockey for power through the use of money, sex, and brutality. Its success in this arena cements the film’s status as one of the shrewdest takes on the erotic thriller in recent memory.
Beginning its weeklong theatrical run on Friday before debuting on Netflix Oct. 6, the movie follows an ambitious young couple navigating the cutthroat world of New York finance. Employed as analysts at the same investment banking company, the pair has vowed to keep their relationship secret from their colleagues, lest the firm penalize them for violating policy — or worse, stamp them with the scarlet letter of prioritizing romantic needs over professional drive.
Much of the story unfolds in their office, a sterile, gray space filled with clacking keyboards and jittery energy. During long work days, the company’s army of analysts — who each report to a portfolio manager, or PM — works under the hawkeyed gaze of Campbell (Eddie Marsan), a ruthless boss prone to axing underperformers at the drop of a hat. Trouble between Emily and Luke begins early in the film, after a PM position opens and Luke, operating on hearsay from Emily, assumes the gig is his. What an unfortunate surprise for his fragile male ego, then, when Campbell grants Emily the promotion instead.
The remainder of the film, unfolding almost entirely in the office or in the couple’s one-bedroom apartment, tracks the unruly aftermath. Huffy and indignant about having to report to his fiancée, Luke grasps for threads of dominance at home. He insults Emily’s work attire, withholds sex, and insists that Campbell only gave her the job to fill a quota. Emily, meanwhile, sucks at cigarettes to alleviate the double stress of striving in her new role while bolstering Luke’s self-esteem.
In her first movie, Domont establishes herself as a master calibrator of mood. Using only a handful of locations, she ticks up the tension scene by scene, using camerawork and editing to graph the widening emotional chasm between Emily and Luke. Throughout, the sound design, full of screechy subway noises and rhythmic beats, is superbly agitated, as are the many interlude shots of these downtown dwellers hustling through pre-dawn Manhattan on their early-morning commutes.
The performances are also strong. As the emasculated Luke, Ehrenreich toggles pleasingly between loser and monster, exemplifying how a man’s temper tantrum can transmute into physical violence. Dynevor, known to Netflix viewers for her role in “Bridgerton,” may look delicate, but here she uses her gauzy grace as a veil for ferocity. Like the alluring ladies of 1980s erotic thrillers (Kathleen Turner in 1981′s “Body Heat” comes to mind), Emily comes to use her femininity as a cudgel, and although we are more closely aligned with her character, she’s no heroine. Her ambition proves just as egomaniacal as Luke’s; she’s just better at playing the game.
Once upon a Reagan era, erotic thrillers ruled the box office. Movies like “Body Heat” and 1992′s “Basic Instinct” hinged on aggressive, carnal, calculating femmes fatales who were not so much villains as they were caricatures of men’s fears about powerful women. By centering “Fair Play” on a working woman who (at least at first) bends over backward to soothe the anxieties of the men surrounding her, Domont nods to the erotic thrillers of yore and then speeds past them, creating something sexy and exciting, but also gleefully modern.
Written and directed by Chloe Domont. Starring Phoebe Dynevor, Alden Ehrenreich, Eddie Marsan, Rich Sommer, and Sebastian De Souza. At Landmark Kendall Square and Coolidge Corner Theatre. 113 minutes. R (some sexual violence)