“Fair Play” is a superbly malevolent erotic thriller about two ambitious financial analysts who drink too much, sleep too little and cannot afford to bring their feelings to work. The trouble is that Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) are secretly engaged — a tension aggravated when their boss, Campbell (an intimidating Eddie Marsan), promotes her over him. “I’m so happy for you,” Luke manages to croak. Emily believes him (briefly) but Chloe Domont, the writer and director of this impeccable debut feature, suspects this couple might not survive her cutting observations on money, gender and power. Domont doesn’t destroy their bliss with a sledgehammer; she uses a shiv. The agony that follows is a star-making performance for Dynevor and a star-correcting one for Ehrenreich who, in playing a nepotism hire confounded by his first brush with failure, reminds audiences why we’ve been rooting for the actor to succeed.
Each dawn, Emily and Luke take separate routes to One Crest Capital where they pretend to be strangers. Their co-workers are jackals and our leads, while magnetic and madly in love, aren’t much more evolved. “I didn’t get into this to be a hero,” Emily admits. The office culture is captured in one sight gag: Emily, Luke and their fellow underlings zoning out during workplace harassment training while in the background, an upper-level portfolio manager demolishes his desk with a golf club. The shot is cleverly staged — the cinematographer Menno Mans moves his camera like a comedian building to a punchline — and it packs a wallop of foreboding. Our lovebirds should’ve heeded those tips on conflict avoidance.
Otherwise, Domont attacks from the flank. Emily senses approaching threats, but they’re never quite what she, or we, expect. When Campbell tricks Emily into meeting him for a 2 a.m. drink, she’s relieved to find he’s singled her out only to privately compliment her brains and drive. Later, at a strip club, Emily’s male colleagues try to rattle her with disgusting frat house tales that couldn’t even be printed in Penthouse. She’s bored — what blowhards! The real menace is in Luke’s silence, in how he punishes Emily by becoming withdrawn and mulish. There’s nothing she can say, or do, to make her fiancé smile, and her disastrously obnoxious attempts to relieve the pressure just make things worse.
While these high finance investors talk as though they stake millions on neutral data, “Fair Play” suggests that fortunes are actually made by placing a bet on whose opinion you trust. Domont delights in that clash, and layers the film with as many other contrasts as she can find: romance versus blood, aggression versus perception, and cruel fights that play out over a soundtrack of tender soul. As verbal wounds escalate into literal bruises, we realize Domont has tricked us to invest our own empathy in these two emotionally bankrupt young lovers who can accept volatility in the stock market — but not in themselves. Before the knives come out, Luke tries to defend his actions. “I’ve been nothing but supportive!” he protests. The bleakest part is that he believes it.
Rated R or sexual content, sexual violence and language. Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes. Watch on Netflix.