During a bitingly funny early scene in Chloe Domont’s sleek, feminine update on the ’90s erotic thriller model, Fair game, entry-level employees sit on the ground floor of high-roller New York investment firm Crest Capital and watch one of those sedative HR video seminars on creating a safer workplace. As buzzwords like Accountability, Conduct and Integrity flash on screen, a project manager in one of the coveted offices along the walls is seen completely collapsing, smashing his monitors with a golf club and spewing a torrent of expletives until security escorts him out .
The undisguised glee with which all this is perceived by the subordinate analysts at their desks is a sign of how toxically competitive the environment is. Employees are constantly throwing shy glances or trying to catch whispered conversations, waiting for the next head to hit the chopping block hoping it could create an opening for them to move up the ladder.
It comes down to
Smooth and confident, if not horribly deep.
Among those hungry financial analysts, far enough apart to avoid suspicion, are aspiring power couple Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich), who have kept their exciting relationship a secret because internal dating is against company policy. But outside the office they can’t keep their hands off each other.
We know, because while the tones of Donna Summer’s classic “Love to Love You Baby” still echo in the opening scene, Emily and Luke are meeting in the bathroom at his brother’s wedding. In a touch of vintage Neil LaBute, the sudden onset of Emily’s period messes up their formal wear, but that doesn’t deter Luke. He calmly picks up the sticky engagement ring from the spilled floor and proposes.
That intro, replete with some very basic dialogue like “I fucking love you so much,” lets us know what throwback territory we’ve entered. But if there’s one major flaw in this self-confident and compelling debut film, it’s that it’s sleazy enough to be fun, aside from serious overturning of outdated gender dynamics, but not quite sloppy enough to be truly juicy. I kept hoping to see Glenn Close in a dark corner flickering a lamp on and off, or Demi Moore writhing on a bed and showered with money. Oh well.
Intrigue over who gets the angry golfer’s spot heats up when Emily overhears a colleague sharing a rumor that Luke is up for project manager. They immediately start celebrating, with more sex of course, and Emily says it’s time for them to go to the office confession now that they’re engaged. But Luke insists on waiting until she gets a promotion too, and they can “tell everyone to go fuck themselves”.
But things don’t go as planned. Emily receives a late-night call from scheming co-worker Rory (Sebastian de Souza), requesting her presence at a fancy downtown cocktail bar. Only Rory has already left when she gets there, Crest CEO Campbell (Eddie Marsan), a cold-hearted boss cut from Logan Roy cloth, alone at the bar.
Campbell subverts expectations for a film of this type and does not attack her, saying instead that she hides her light under a bushel. He expresses admiration for her flight from working-class Long Island (“Not an easy hole to crawl out of”), and her rapid ascent past leading financial institutions before landing on Crest two years ago.
When Emily gets home, she has to inform Luke that he won’t get the prime minister job because she is, making him the analyst reporting to her. Luke makes unconvincing noises that he’s happy for her, but any appearance that the relationship is more important to him than his career seems thin.
He hears guys in the office speculating lustfully about how she got the “fast pass,” and a seed of doubt seems to be planted in his head. He asks her more than once if Campbell has tried anything with her, suggesting that he is somewhat prone to the view that the only way a young woman can get ahead is through sex. Or because of gender perspective.
Thus begins the inexorable process of Luke’s emasculation, where every sign of Emily’s success means another blow to his manhood, to which he gradually begins to respond by knocking her down in every possible way.
Filmed by Dutch cinematographer Menno Mans, mainly in moody night scenes or in the leached office lighting, with unobtrusive, slow-moving camerawork that examines the characters intently, the film makes it clear as the distance creeps into the relationship that at some point the union will fragment. And given the psychological thriller tradition that Domont riffs on, it’s likely to involve a bit of violence.
All the talk in the financial world about buying and selling, pre-emptively finding weaknesses in the market to be exploited for big returns, has nothing to do with plot wallpaper. It’s only interesting insofar as it’s reflected in Emily and Luke’s relationship. While she chats with Crest’s executives, he’s at home feasting and teaching himself confidence-building skills touted by a business guru who dismisses Emily as a waste of time.
Partially in retaliation when Luke petulously ignores her suggestion of a date night, she shows a willingness to be one of the guys at a stripper bar where she laughs along with her co-workers’ misogynistic tales of college sexcapades as she throws back shots and clots down. cash for lap dances. But when she comes home broken and usurps what was once Luke’s role as a sexual instigator, he’s not in the mood. (I cringed a bit when Emily insisted, “We’ve got to prank each other now,” so who can blame him for refusing?)
Emily’s attempts to help Luke at work backfire, and when she reluctantly bets big on a tip from him that doesn’t pay off, causing the company to lose a hefty sum, there’s a faint hint of sabotage in the air. Or incompetence, which is perhaps even worse. Emily ignores Luke’s advice and follows her own instincts in a Hail Mary to save face. Emily shows how smart she is beyond his skill level.
Ehrenreich makes Luke look haggard and haunted with every new achievement that earns Emily recognition and every sign that an upward trajectory is blocked for him. Bridgerton star Dynevor’s Emily, meanwhile, is torn between nurturing her own career path and being sensitive to Luke’s bruised ego, while trying to keep balance at home. But he becomes the epitome of masculine fragility exposed by feminine power, and we know that when he bursts, it won’t be pretty.
The ferocity of Luke’s humiliation at work is quite surprising, as is his brutal act of taking Emily’s power away in the most despicable way. That all of this happens while Emily’s pushy mother (Geraldine Somerville) throws an engagement party against her daughter’s wishes makes their relationship crumbling all the more brutal. The latest developments honor the lurid psychothriller tradition, though arguably they could have gone a few steps further. Even with a little bloodshed, the conclusion feels a bit coy.
Domont’s script touches on numerous pertinent points in his observation of male insecurity in a rapidly changing world of female parity. Fair game is never as provocative as it seems to think. It’s not without unlikely twists either, most notably Luke’s sudden moralistic streak as he hisses at Emily for “making the rich richer.” Gosh, mate, what field are you in again?
But there’s no denying the writer-director’s control, making keen use of a score by Brian McOmber to modulate the tone, with its quivering strings and needle-like synths sometimes sounding like a ticking clock.
Dynevor and Ehrenreich have strong chemistry and generate plenty of sparks, both erotic and antagonistic, though I wish Domont had allowed them a few more unhinged moments. Considering how it begins, the film’s later developments seem to be crying out for a more generous helping of nasty excess. There’s not much to differentiate the supporting characters either, apart from Marsan’s icy Campbell, who spreads fear with just a dead stare, and before Crazy men favorite Rich Sommer as his submissive right-hand man.
Nagging aside, it’s good to see a genre film addressing gender conflict in strictly non-didactic ways, making this a promising debut for Domont.