“Fair Play” Is a Tense Examination of Vicious Cycles Wrapped in a Toxic Relationship Thriller

A woman with red hair dressed in all black, a woman with a black long sleeve shirt and blue jeans, and a man dressed in black with a denim jacket, stand in front of a step and repeat at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

PARK CITY, UTAH – JANUARY 20: (L-R) Phoebe Dynevor, Director Chloe Domont and Alden Ehrenreich attend the 2023 Sundance Film Festival “Fair Play” Premiere at Library Center Theatre on January 20, 2023 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images)

By Bailey Pennick

“For me, this movie started with wanting to reckon with some personal experiences that I had in the past, specifically when I was in relationships with men who were threatened by me, threatened by who I was, and what I wanted to do with my life,” says writer-director Chloe Domont as she describes the inspiration behind her feature debut, Fair Play. “And the only way I felt like I could deal with it, at the time, was by making myself small. It wasn’t something that we ever talked about, it was just under the rug and it became a pattern that was really normalized.” 

The crowd at the Library Center Theatre after the project’s Festival premiere buzzes with recognition of feeling seen within these all-too-familiar encounters. “This cycle repeated itself with other partners and it was never anything too explicit, just passive aggression and undermining comments, and it became this vicious cycle,” she continues, connecting the personal and universal themes of her film. “I just wanted to tell this story and say these things should not be normalized. I just wanted to talk about something that had become unspeakable to me.”

The tension between public-facing pleasantries and unspeakable feelings and internal struggles is what is gnawing at the central relationship in Fair Play. On the surface, Luke (an unnervingly excellent Alden Ehrenreich) and Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) have got their lives figured out: They’re both promising up-and-comers at a powerful New York financial firm, and they’re in a secret relationship that’s going so well they just got engaged. (At his brother’s wedding, which is a little tacky, but hey! They’re in love.) 

From the get-go, though, you aren’t quite sure if you should be yearning for the couple’s lifestyle. Sharp cinematography emphasizes the cold, hard workspaces of their firm, with glass offices allowing for all to gawk at (or ignore) every power broker’s meltdown. And with each of these dramatic and very public terminations comes an opening for one of the rank and file to move up — and this is where the pressure in Fair Play really starts. “It’s more tense to stay on [their] faces,” Domont explains about the film’s striking shots. “It’s about the looks and the tension between them.”

It’s clear that both Luke and Emily will go to extreme lengths for their jobs (4:30 a.m. alarms every day, 2 a.m. meetups with supervisors, hiding their full selves with co-workers, etc.), but when Emily nabs a promotion over her fiancé, the power couple dynamic starts to falter. Suddenly, Luke is questioning how Emily actually got this promotion over him. His supportive partner façade gives way to offensive stereotypes that are, unfortunately, very familiar to any working woman in the world climbing the corporate ladder today. 

But Domont isn’t ready to call Luke a villain, just a conflicted product of the way he was raised with traditional ideals of masculinity at his core. “Luke is a man that has been conditioned in a certain way and that masculinity means one thing,” she explains. “He is a progressive man: He loves and adores [Emily] because she’s a killer [and] because she’s intelligent, but because of how he was raised, it terrifies him too. I wanted to show that duality.”

As Luke pulls away, looking for more validation of his fragile masculinity in the YouTube teachings of a shady character, Emily hardens herself for the boys’ club nature of the finance world. “You see [Luke] struggling… and you see him wanting to do the right thing, but there’s something inside of him and it becomes a poison in him,” explains Domont as she turns to look at her leading man, standing to her left. “I think Alden does an incredible job showing that duality and showing that struggle, and it’s something that at a certain point it overtakes him. For me, this movie is a tragedy on both sides because he can’t see any other way out of his pain.”

The film’s progressively frantic pacing turns the slow-burn psychological drama into a full-blown thriller that comes to a head in a way that neither character is prepared for. However, it was always veering toward mutual destruction according to the filmmaker: “I wanted to escalate the conflict, and I wanted to use the genre to keep the tension going. You need to push the envelope! I just like to push it more than anyone else might.”

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