I am usually the last person to ever watch anything that is pitched as a “sensual, erotic thriller”, but just for Phoebe Dynevor, I was willing to make an exception and watch Fair Play on Netflix. And I am so glad I did, because this has to be one of my most favorite feminist thriller films to date!
A gripping and unnervingly disturbing look at the downward spiral of a power couple’s relationship, Fair Play movie is a brilliantly made thriller that shows just how dangerous fragile masculinity can be.
Fair Play Movie Review: A Riveting And Clever Dissection Of Toxic Masculinity
Trigger Warnings: Workplace sexism, gaslighting, manipulation, sexual assault
Fair Play starts off the way I would expect any romantic thriller to: by introducing us to the very loving couple–Emily (played by Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich)–who are dating in secret since they both work as financial analysts at the same company.
While attending his brother’s wedding, Luke gets on one knee in the bathroom and proposes to Emily–not exactly what I would call romantic, but the way the scene is set up foreshadows their doomed relationship early on.
Soon enough, we see Emily and Luke in their shared apartment, getting ready for work while being perfectly in sync with each other, before parting ways and going to their office separately to hide their relationship from their co-workers (apparently HR isn’t exactly fond of workplace romances).
When a senior member is fired and Emily hears a rumor that Luke might be promoted to fill in the gap, she wastes no time in sharing the news with Luke. Both are very clearly elated–and this is an important scene in the movie. Although it was just a rumor, Fair Play movie clearly shows how delighted both Emily and Luke were at the possibility of Luke’s promotion.
However, the plot twist comes in when Emily gets a call from work and it turns out that she would be getting the promotion instead of Luke, who apparently has made several bad decisions before that cost the company millions in losses.
What really struck me in this moment was how, instead of breaking the news with joy to her fiance, Emily is very clearly troubled, and is apprehensive of his reaction. Luke plays the supportive partner, congratulating her and pulling her in for a hug, but Ehrenreich’s brilliant acting shows the character’s pain and jealousy just simmering underneath the surface.
Before long, we see Luke’s radical transformation as he slowly starts to pick Emily apart piece by piece–starting with making comments about her appearance and choice of clothing to questioning her leadership skills in the workplace. And Emily, being in love with Luke and obviously placing a lot of trust in his opinions, slowly begins to lose her self-confidence and breaks down one painful day at a time.
I cannot explain in words just how painful those scenes were to watch. As someone who was long ago in a relationship with a man very much like Luke, the amount of gaslighting that was being to Emily was difficult to watch on screen.
That being said, credit must go where its due. Chloe Domont, the director, masterfully shows both Emily’s wavering confidence and Luke’s sinister vengefulness through nuanced alterations in dialogue and the artful use of compelling visual elements.
In fact, one of the best things about Fair Play movie is how scenes and dialogues that were initially portrayed in a romantic way were soon turned on their heads and used in some of the most brutally scathing arguments.
For instance, when Emily is called by her boss at 2:00 AM in the morning for a clandestine meeting (during which she finds out she is to be promoted), Luke is visibly concerned about her well-being, asking if she was harassed and if she was safe. But then as the movie progresses, Luke begins to use that 2:00 AM meeting to accuse Emily of having slept her way to the top.
Unfortunately for Emily, that would soon prove to be the tip of the iceberg of Luke’s manipulation, accusations, and gaslighting. From trying to convince her to make poor bad decisions at work to making her question her own sexual appeal, for nearly the entirety of the movie we watch helplessly as Luke undermines Emily at every turn.
Emily herself has other pressures on her plate too. On one hand, she has the pressure to prove to her male colleagues that she is “one of the boys”–she goes far enough as to visit a strip club with them where she casually listens to disturbingly derogatory stories about the men’s conquests and pays the dancers to perform sensually at their table.
On the other hand, she is also constantly trying to reassure Luke and walking on eggshells around him in an attempt to make him feel as though he is not just her equal, but that he might even be better than her.
Throughout the movie, we get bits and pieces of both Emily and Luke’s past, and before long, it is very much clear to the viewers that unlike Luke, whose only challenge at the workplace was to prove his merit, Emily had to tackle sexism and misogyny in a way Luke would never have to experience.
And unlike Luke or her other male colleagues, her promotion and title do not protect Emily from this misogyny, nor does she receive any apology later on for it–the only acknowledgment of the abuse that she had to bear is a cheque worth $575K in commissions, a mere pat on the back for doing a good job.
As the film progresses and Emily’s career continues to take off, Luke’s resentment keeps on rising to the point. No spoilers, but by the end of the movie, Luke does the unthinkable, taking advantage of Emily in a moment when she is most vulnerable in order to assert his dominance against her will.
But this is at the end of the day, a feminist film, and Domont doesn’t end the story with Luke walking away after he asserts his dominance in their relationship. Instead, she flips some of the earliest scenes on their heads during the final climax–and though the ending is not exactly a happy one, Phoebe Dynevor is unforgettable when she stands up for the abuse her character had to bear and forces Luke to take accountability for his actions.
All in all, this is the kind of thriller that really opens up important conversations about gender politics and the fragile male ego, both in the workplace and in intimate relationships. And the clever use of symbolism sprinkled throughout the movie really makes you appreciate Domont’s creative storytelling. 10/10 would recommend watching this.