This article is part of our 2023 Sundance Film Festival coverage. Follow along as we check out the films and filmmakers appearing at the first fest of the new year. In this entry, Rob Hunter reviews Chloe Dumont’s Fair Play.
Explorations of the gender dynamic, particularly in the workplace, will never go out of style as the conflict feels eternal. Old boys clubs, women paid less than men for the same work, sexual rumors as explanations for female advancement — there’s a lot to factor in when discussing the topic. The conversation only grows more dangerously convoluted when personal relationships come into play. All of these make up the focus of Chloe Dumont‘s Fair Play, but it starts with a happy, healthy couple with a bright future.
Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) are something of a secret power couple at a successful New York City hedge fund. They’re canoodling and cohabitating on the side despite company policy, and both are gunning for career advancement. The couple celebrate when she tells him the rumor is he’s up for an impending promotion, but there’s a squealing of brakes when Emily is the one promoted instead. Luke says the right words of congratulations, but it’s clear he’s a bit put off by the news. It becomes even clearer when Emily starts hobnobbing with executives while Luke spirals downward — he wonders if infidelity is involved, he loses interest in her sexually, he worries she may have played him, and soon the insecurities and doubts begin to eat him alive.
Some will label Fair Play an erotic thriller, but that’s a bit reductive and misleading. Yes there are suspenseful thrills, and yes there’s a lusty sexuality on display between our leads in the first act, but sex itself isn’t central to the dynamic or themes. (That said, label the film however you want as long as you watch it!) Instead, writer/director Dumont’s target is the male ego in a world where men are told they are king.
It’s not just that Emily is a bigger provider to their home than he is, it’s that they were direct competitors and she won out. Worse, she was promoted by a male boss after a late night meeting, and while Luke and Emily’s relationship seems sound and secure at first, that one little doubt in Luke’s mind is enough to crack their foundation. The result is something delicious for viewers — think the financial swings and fleshy minglings of HBO’s Industry paired with the intimate doubts and jealousies of Indecent Proposal and a dash of unbridled anxiety from Uncut Gems. We’re watching the potential destruction of a loving relationship in real time, and it’s both horrifying and fascinating.
The fascination comes in large part to Dumont’s sharp script what cuts like a knife through the couple’s perfect veneer. Emily, Luke, and viewers alike believe and expect the material beneath to be strong, but each little turn chips away more and more. Luke’s coworkers openly discuss their theories on Emily’s rise, and his resistance to those thoughts falls apart as he tries and fails to advance himself. He’s on the road to losing control, and there’s a real threat that he might take Emily down with him — something that might not be all that unintentional. How these two characters react and interact will decide their future together or apart, and it’s a compelling watch seeing the two make their stand.
That’s not to imply Fair Play is necessarily a he said/she said situation with both sides being worthy of support. It’s Luke’s choices and actions that begin their downfall and ramp up their descent, but at a certain point Emily decides to stop being a docile target, and things only get uglier from there. As ugly as it gets, it’s Luke who drives the couple towards disaster as his insecurity and self-emasculated manhood takes them both off the pleasant road of their relationship. Dumont’s writing and direction are key here, but an equal weight is bore by Dynevor and Ehrenreich.
Their chemistry is legit both in and out of their clothes, and you can feel their ambitions and physicality pulsing beneath their skin. Once fractured, they move individually through degrees of hurt and anger, and the fierceness of their previous attraction to each other is redirected into cruel barbs and emotional uppercuts. It’s increasingly brutal — think the anger of excellent The War of the Roses but far more grounded and emotionally charged — and the race towards a conclusion becomes a tense and suspenseful one.
Fair Play is a fascinating thriller destined to divide audiences who insist on choosing sides based on their own assumed prejudices and attitudes. The conversations that follow, especially after that ending, are going to be barnburners.