Sundance Review: “Fair Play” Is an Uncomfortable but Gripping Take on Gender and Careerism
Written by: Hannah Tran | January 28th, 2023
Fair Play (Chloe Domont, 2023) 3½ out of 4 stars.
Luke and Emily are two ambitious young professionals at the same cutthroat hedge fund. They are also in a secret relationship. Following an unexpected promotion, Luke and Emily’s relationship unravels with extreme consequences. This is the story of writer/director Chloe Domont’s Fair Play. Led by two star performances, Fair Play is an uneasy feature directorial debut that demonstrates Domont’s talent for cultivating a unique tone that can feel both horrifying and absurdly funny at the same time.
Bridgerton’s Phoebe Dynevor dives fully into the ever-changing world of Emily, perfectly capturing the character’s role as both a victim and aggressor. Meanwhile, Solo: A Star Wars Story’s Alden Ehrenreich steals the screen with his desperate, often pathetic portrayal of Luke. The two actors are total powerhouses together, as they manage to give their characters empathetic inner lives while also portraying the manipulation in their shared dynamic and creating some unforgettable shouting matches that feel both justified by their characters’ personalities and entirely unwinnable because of them.
Chloe Domont’s writing elegantly establishes these personalities. Their identities and dynamic are captured in the first ten minutes as we see the differences in their costumes, hair, and daily actions. Domont trusts the audience to draw their own conclusions, and she is an expert at the “show don’t tell” rule, as she confidently makes wordless revelations only through what’s seen and heard. This method of unraveling the story allows the viewer to feel part of the narrative and makes the tension come to a very natural crescendo. And while Domont’s writing can occasionally veer into trashy territory, it simultaneously recalls the tone of the 1980s erotic thrillers that Fair Play is clearly influenced by.
The story feels timeless, but it also concludes with a message that makes it more specific. It uses its characters as pawns to explore the power imbalance in gender dynamics and how one can exploit the coded differences to attain more power, regardless of their own identity. This particular world serves as such an exciting backdrop for this sort of story as none of the characters are very interested in being good or moral. However, Domont is also deservedly sympathetic to how the consequences of gender dynamics are more frequently and casually targeted toward women. One of the most impressive ways Domont explores these ideas, however, is through Luke and Emily’s sexual relationship. This film is less an erotic thriller and more a psychosexual drama in that sex is intelligently used as an act of power more often than an act of love.
It’s electrifying to see how far into its own insanity Fair Play is willing to dive. With its smart direction, story, and performances, not to mention its suffocating camerawork and tense score, it is a thoughtful and suspenseful story of a modern-day relationship. Its careful restraint makes its ultimate violence feel more extreme and brutal than expected. And although it does just barely overstay its welcome, it lands its resolution with a spine-chilling finale that exemplifies the best of what the film as a whole has to offer.