This article contains Fair Play spoilers.
It is not the first time the union of Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) has marked a turning point in the relationship with blood on the floor. When we meet this young couple at Luke’s brother’s wedding at the beginning of the film, they seem hopelessly in love, or at least in sizzling thrall, while attempting to have sex in the bathroom. They don’t actually succeed, however. Instead the pair christen what turns out to be a drunken and ill-conceived marriage proposal by Luke—he drops the engagement ring out of his pocket and onto the tiled floor—with menstrual blood. It even stains Emily’s bridesmaid dress as Luke goes down on her.
This botched fooling around will wind up being the most successful lovemaking we see between the pair, because by movie’s end their grotesquely toxic relationship is in tatters, the engagement is canceled with a capital “C,” and it’s Luke’s turn to bleed as Emily slices and dices him as he kneels cowering on their living room hardwoods. And in a final line which stunned the audience I watched Fair Play with, Emily tells her weeping lover-turned-abuser, “Now wipe the blood off my floor and get out. I’m done with you now.”
The abruptness with which writer-director Chloe Domont elects to cut to black after that sign-off is, by design, jarring and uncomfortable. But as her title suggests, it is very much “fair play” given everything we witnessed occur in the 110 minutes between the bookend bloodlettings.
Fair Play has been sold since its rapturous reception at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year as a throwback to the type of erotic thrillers of the 1980s and ‘90s which were once Adrian Lyne’s bread and butter: cold, sexy, tension-builders about the fucks, mental and otherwise, men and women give in insistently “modern” situations. However, this sales pitch is a bit misleading. While Domont uses her feature-length directorial debut to ratchet tension until your discomfort is to a roaring boil, the only orgasmic release is when Emily finally gets her long overdue justice with a knife’s point in the final scene.
Otherwise, the film is the anti-erotic thriller due to the myriad ways it inverts this subgenre’s infamous tropes about (male) titillation and often shockingly conservative gender politics intended to punish the independent, single, and unmarried women of the story.
Indeed, Fair Play begins with Emily making a spur of the moment decision to agree to marry Luke in a hotel bathroom, but the rest of the film, all the way to its abrupt ending, is about Emily being forced to see why that decision was a doomed mistake from the jump—and how Luke’s nice guy charisma may be palpable (he is played by Alden Ehrenreich, after all), but the warning signs were always there that assholes are going to asshole. Consider we do not see the title card until after Luke also tells Emily the morning following their engagement, “I wish we could tell the whole world,” even as he requires her to take the ring off and leave it on the kitchen counter so no one at work knows they’re engaged… or even together.
The poisoned pill dynamic at the heart of Fair Play is about how on the surface these two seem so much alike. Yet familiarity can just as much breed a false sense of affection as contempt. Emily and Luke work at the same cutthroat hedge fund firm on Wall Street that is ruled over like a totalitarian fiefdom by their boss of bosses, Campbell (Eddie Marsan at his most reptilian and coldblooded). Office romances are forbidden, yet one wonders if that would really be so enforced if a couple had reached the point of matrimony. Not that Luke will even let Emily consider the idea; he’s afraid it will harm both of their chances for promotion, and that is what he wants most in the world.
The two work as ambitious and hungry analysts on equal footing within the firm. It also puts them on equal footing at home during the film’s early scenes where Dynevor and Ehrenreich reveal spectacular chemistry. After that one happy night at the beginning, we find them the next morning wrapped around each other on the floor. It apparently was ground zero of their celebration. But by the following morning, the pair are sleeping rigidly apart from each other, looking at the ceiling.
The cause of this, of course, is that Emily got the promotion Luke thought was his. Earlier that day, a midlevel guy at their company was fired and had a severe meltdown on his way out the door. Instead of a warning sign of a terrible work culture, both Luke and Emily see it as the opportunity to move up, with rumors suggesting Luke was the one pegged for the job. Yet when Campbell drunkenly calls Emily at 2 am, she finds out the job is hers, so long as she plays along with the boys’ club mentality of management. This means drinking scotch at 2 a.m. at a posh downtown bar, or (later) being the “cool girl” who doesn’t mind her fellow managers like to spend their happy hours buying lap dances from strippers.
Emily, as we learn, is masterfully adept at playing this game that’s rigged against her due to her gender. But the one person who is supposed to be her ally throughout the B.S. becomes, instead, her greatest enemy. Initially, Luke shows genuine concern for Emily after the top guy demands she get drinks with him in the wee small hours in the morning. Is she going to be assaulted? But concern evaporates into barely concealed jealousy upon hearing she got the promotion. All he can offer is a half-hearted “congratulations.”
Domont’s screenplay takes patient, subtle care at contrasting the unspoken differences between their backgrounds. When the film opens, the pair have arrived at the same place in this elite hedge fund that makes deals worth tens or hundreds of millions of dollars each day, and they both came from nondescript Ivy League schools. However, the journey to these peaks was a lot longer for her. Luke comes from money. We see it in the first scene at his brother’s lavish wedding. Emily comes from the wrong side of Long Island, a vaguely lower-middle-class genesis that Campbell uses against her with a taunt while giving her the promotion. But that means she had to fight and scrap her way to be Luke’s equal in the boys’ club… and then his superior.
The film follows the deterioration of their relationship along two tracks: the professional and the sexual. In the first sphere, Luke’s privileged background instantly embitters him at work. He’s made the firm almost as much money as Emily, but she got to move up?! And yet, slowly we’re keyed into see why Emily is the better employee. Not only does Luke make reckless choices and assumes everything will work out—negging his secret fiancée in private to make a bet that winds up costing the firm $50 million—but he takes dangerous shortcuts to right the ship by trying to convince Emily to engage in insider trading to save her job. Instead she has better instincts, making a bigger bet that doesn’t expose the firm to litigation when she ultimately wins them $500 million that night.
Luke feels entitled to be there. He accuses Emily of never knowing what it’s like to “want something and have it taken away.” He thinks his privilege as a white man should endear him to Campbell, going so far as to grovel for a job from his Satanic employer when a new position opens up. Emily, by contrast, moved up because she was better at the job and never had the luxury to feel like success was owed to her.
Yet the far more intimate, and ultimately evil, betrayals occur when they take their crumbling dynamic home. Again, the film begins with the pair’s bodies entwined on the floor. As soon as the promotion comes between them, the pair spend the next night not even touching beneath the covers. By the end of the film, Emily spends one night sleeping on the couch, and the next unable to find Luke… his jealousy and resentment has built such a gap between them that they can no longer even see each other.
Through it all, Emily attempts to fill that space time and again with romantic flirting and blatant come-ons, ranging from walking into their bedroom with no pants to finally begging her lover to ‘fuck me right now.” And Luke literally cannot. Get. It. Up.
Not until the ending.
During the climax of the movie, Luke implodes his career at their hedge fund and tries to take Emily down with him. For a half hour now, viewers are likely begging Emily to call it off, which she finally does over the phone after he ghosts her. Only then does he act like a supportive boyfriend, showing up for the engagement party Emily’s mother insisted on throwing for the pair. That engagement party instead turns into a wake. Luke finally speaks aloud all of his sexual frustrations and sexist resentments, accusing Emily of having gotten the promotion by sleeping with Campbell in front of both of their parents. He calls her a whore. She responds in kind by smashing a bottle across his head.
Only after clearly losing forever the woman Luke claims to love, does he find the wherewithal to make love to her, and again in a bathroom. No, scratch that. He doesn’t want to make love to her; he wants to fuck her. The psychological and physical contradictions that form our identities, not to mention our libidos, are messy things. The need for closure explains itself when Emily initially responds in kind to what is obviously a bad idea. Why not end things with some ugly, angry sex?
But in a sequence that graphically dramatizes how boundaries can shift and change, even mid-coitus, Luke reveals he isn’t out for goodbye sex. He doesn’t even want good sex. He wants revenge. He wants to dominate. And whether he wants to or not, he rapes her in a scene where this meathead demonstrably is too stupid and too selfish to realize what he is doing is rape. After he slams her face against a granite bathroom sink, Emily tries to raise her head, only to be pushed down again. Like all rape, this is about control and making clear his satisfaction is coming at the expense of her pain and humiliation. He keeps going long after she told him to stop and that “you’re hurting me.”
For too much of Fair Play’s running time, Emily tried to humor and coddle her tantrum-throwing fiancé. She gives him space to whine and vent, and even make passive aggressive negs about her wardrobe. She’s been more than fair, and in the end he still can only make love to her like a caveman, reasserting his expected superiority—and he’ll do it violently if all else fails.
This shocking ugliness puts into motion the final scenes that will likely leave viewers debating. At first, Emily doesn’t try to get justice through legal recourse or by going to any authorities. Instead she tries to get even by playing Luke’s game of manipulations and professional subterfuge. So, yes, she lies to Campbell about Luke stalking her for months at work. She attempts to have the male superior, who so clearly values her expertise, to label him a sexual predator.
And Campbell refuses. He might recognize Emily makes him more money, but this is still a boys’ club. Even when she plays along as “the cool girl,” women can’t use their levers of power to destroy careers as has happened so many times in the reverse. Campbell says that Luke’s day-to-day misbehavior is enough to blackball him professionally in the financial field. That is punishment enough. It’s a quiet reminder that Emily might be in the inner circle, but she isn’t in the club. And at a moment’s notice Campbell could call her “a bitch” again if she displeases him.
With her screenplay, Domont attempts to unravel the unspoken and discreet double standards and injustices placed on women, but the filmmaker never wants Emily to be mistaken as a martyr. The protagonist does attempt to bury Luke through surreptitious means, but that is because the system is so rigged against her. By electing to pursue inaction, Campbell actively protects Luke. And that’s for the clear-cut dangerousness of one of his employees stalking another.
Now consider if Emily told Campbell what really happened: She and Luke began having sex, and after he turned violent, she said NO, and he raped her anyway. It’s the kind of nuanced situation that is still dismissed in the court of public opinion six years after “Me Too” became a hashtag. Even Luke is too deluded and selfish to realize he raped Emily until she tells him in the final scene.
That is why she has to stab him, and the movie ends in the heightened melodrama of Emily slicing her ex-lover until he’s weeping and bleeding on the floor. Moments earlier, he told her that after all the shit he pulled, he still landed on his feet, with a friend of his brother giving him “seed money” to start his own hedge fund. Rich white guys never strike out. There is no comeuppance for this kind of asshole. Hence the cathartic schadenfreude of the ending.
If he won’t even say “sorry,” she’ll get justice with a blade. She keeps cutting until he admits “I’m sorry” and “I raped you.” In a game as rigged as the one Emily has played her whole life, this is the only thing approaching “fair play.” And after getting that impossible confession, if only for her alone, she at least has closure. Now this sad excuse for a man can leave.
Fair Play is on Netflix now.