The Chloe Domont directorial is intoxicating in its viciousness
Story: Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich), a young couple working at the same hedge fund company, get engaged. But their relationship takes a turn when one of them gets promoted, leading to feelings of jealousy and anger.
Review: What Fair Play instantly nails is the sense of pace. Franklin Peterson’s editing makes the film survive many ambitious leaps into thorny territory, never allowing the film to dip even once. This is a tremendously taut, terrifically controlled film. At times, you can almost get the impression of teeth being gnashed in frustration and resentment, keeping it all choked and bottled up, as characters hurtle through the insane, pounding stress of their workplace. One Crest Capital, the New York-based financial firm where Emily and Luke work as analysts, is a site of many horrors. It is a place steeped in thinly veiled sexism and everyone is locked in a game of one-upmanship. There is barely any scope for breathing; everyone is hustling to land a scoop, seal the deal, and be the first at it while kicking off anyone else aiming for the kill. The job is merciless and almost monstrous, entailing competition at its lethal worst. There is no room for relief in moderation and half-measures; either you ace it or get left behind or simply thrown out. It is an ecosystem that trains you to be constantly alert and on your toes. One of the earliest scenes at the firm gives the viewer a peek into the chaos that will subsequently erupt. A portfolio manager has been fired and he doesn’t leave before violently, furiously smashing his workspace. As the film unfolds with its unsettling knots of unease, the rage starts accruing sense, horrifically.
As much as writer-director Chloe Domont puts toxic work cultures under the scanner, she takes a scalpel to the battle between the sexes. It is essential to note how much of the work environment as well as the central, personal relationship at play here are critically influenced by an aggressive, insecure masculinity. Patriarchal values cannot stomach a woman making it ahead of the curve; Domont lays out all of the slowly building, simmering male envy and bitterness and lets it rip in the film’s explosive finale.
When the film opens, Emily accidentally stumbles across an engagement ring that Luke has been planning to give her. After some initial hesitance, she doesn’t take much time in ecstatically agreeing to his proposal. But the couple cannot make their relationship public as their company dictates a policy against co-workers tying the knot. So, while they share an apartment, the two set out separately for work in the morning and feign a formality at work. There is also the glare of intense, scorning judgment the co-workers are more than eager to dole out. The tension escalates for worse when Emily is promoted to the PM’s position, right after he gets his hopes high on circulating rumours of his having snagged it.
The seeds of his suspicion regarding Emily securing the position are sown right from the moment when the boss, Campbell (Eddie Marsan) informs her of her promotion by calling her for drinks in the middle of the night. Despite her insistence that no such thing happened, he keeps asking her if Campbell made any advances. As much as Luke tries to repress his displeasure and acute distrust in Emily having obtained the post on sheer merit and capability, he cannot conceal it for very long, his bruised male ego snapping soon enough.
This is where the film starts to get messier and nastier. There’s practically no looking back after Luke increasingly presumes that Emily got the promotion through servicing a sexual favour. The rampant conversations among his colleagues speculating the same loudly only make the cut deeper. The office scenes are brilliantly staged; notice how Dumont situates the couple, drifting apart from each other in proximate spaces and stealing furtive, tense glances at one another, separated by the definitive glass barrier denoting the difference in rank. Emily feels a stab of guilt in her promotion, especially because it was she who apprised Luke of the rumours regarding him being tipped for the PM position. Her efforts to make up with him and push for him to be noticed by her superiors misfire, as she realises perhaps he is not as savvy as she had considered him to be.
Domont excels in excavating the psycho-sexual dynamics between men and women, including the damage each inflicts on the other as they crumble under the strain of a relentless environment. This is a film where characters have to outsmart the other to get ahead otherwise they will be bulldozed. Domont deliciously handles the power play between her characters, with her actors, Dynevor and Ehrenreich, matching the fearlessness of her storytelling in complete stride. Dynevor especially is outstanding, running away with the film in her acutely perceptive study of a woman who slowly can no longer recognise the man she loved, as he sinks into the pits of the most grotesque spite toward her.
Verdict: Fair Play is ruthless and utterly audacious. What it says and examines it does so with never any pretence of modesty. Domont likes diving headlong into the rottenness within us, what triggers it and the colossal spiral it can tick off. Her characters are averse to slowing down and are quickly ready to take the next punch. By the breathless blaze of its finale, Emily has been through a lot, deeply hurt, but as always she is raring to go, armed with spectacular fury and resolve. Tough to believe this is Domont’s directorial debut, it makes perfect sense why this film scored one of the biggest distribution deals at Sundance earlier this year. This unnerving and extraordinarily stressful film has the capacity to light many a fire.