clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Everyone is so wrong about Netflix’s ‘erotic thriller’ Fair Play

This tense workplace drama is memorable, but it’s been completely mislabeled

Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) and Emily (Phoebe Dynevor), both wet from the shower and with Emily only wearing a wrapped towel around her torso, look at multiple reflections of themselves in their bathroom mirrors in Netflix’s Fair Play Image: Netflix
Oli Welsh is senior editor, U.K., providing news, analysis, and criticism of film, TV, and games. He has been covering the business & culture of video games for two decades.

Usually, when a movie is broadly mischaracterized, a studio has deliberately misrepresented it in marketing materials to broaden its appeal or just didn’t know how to make its real nature clear. But in the case of Fair Play — a tense, needling relationship drama currently streaming on Netflix — the marketers are off the hook. A wrongheaded narrative started to build around Chloe Domont’s debut feature when it first screened at the Sundance Film Festival back in January 2023, before Netflix even acquired it. Some critics convinced themselves that Fair Play represented a kind of renaissance for the erotic thriller genre. It’s nothing of the sort — and pretending that it is one hurts the actual movie.

Fair Play follows a couple of young financial analysts at a small but ruthlessly successful Wall Street hedge fund. Emily (Phoebe Dynevor from Bridgerton) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich of Solo: A Star Wars Story infamy) are madly in love, share an apartment, and get engaged in the movie’s opening minutes. But they take separate trains to work, where they pretend they don’t know each other, so they don’t fall afoul of company policy. They expect Luke to get promoted, but when Emily is chosen instead, awkwardness begins to curdle into resentment — and then worse.

To be fair to the critics claiming Fair Play is an erotic thriller, it does have some echoes of the subgenre’s sleazy 1980s and ’90s heyday. In movies like Indecent Proposal and Disclosure — and probably some others that didn’t star Demi Moore — this kind of battle-of-the-sexes workplace framing was common, in tandem with an aspirational, thrusting, yuppie milieu and an obligatory twist of deception. Fair Play has a couple of big, bracingly frank sex set-pieces, too, which is as unusual to see in a feature film now as it was common back then. But the similarities end there. Precisely there, with the sex.

Secret lovers Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) and Emily (Phoebe Dynevor), pretending not to know each other in the workplace, share a meaningful glance in the elevator as oblivious dudes stand around them in Netflix’s Fair Play Image: Netflix

Fair Play has sex in it, but it isn’t a sexy movie, by Domont’s design. Instead, it’s intimate — at first in an exciting and romantic way, then in a way that’s claustrophobic and troubling. It clings close to its two leads, studying them in tight framing or spying on them across the office using zoom lenses. And it stays in their heads throughout, especially Emily’s.

But the sexual attraction between them isn’t the subject of the movie at all. It’s a fact of their relationship, clearly stated from the start. For most of the movie’s running time, though, attraction rarely comes into their complex, developing power dynamic. Unless you count Luke’s sulky refusals to get it on. At one point, Emily tries to bring sex back in the picture with a bad-joke proposition that Luke turns down and later throws back in her face, in a sour inversion of post-#MeToo gender politics.

Sex does eventually re-enter their relationship, in the worst way possible. But sex isn’t a motivating factor for either of them: They’re driven by self-image, success, and money. An erotic thriller (a good one, at any rate, like Basic Instinct) is often about these things too, but these elements are subsumed in and expressed through sex and/or sexual jealousy, which should be the characters’ driving force. (And to some extent, the viewers’ driving force, too — these are usually consciously titillating movies, while Fair Play very much isn’t.)

Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) carries his lover Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) through the streets at night, surrounded by cars and cabs, in Netflix’s Fair Play Photo: Sergej Radovic/Netflix

A heated, sexy atmosphere is essential for an erotic thriller, along with a sense that sex is the only thing the characters can think about. That’s how a movie like last year’s trashy Patricia Highsmith adaptation Deep Water, from erotic-thriller baron Adrian Lyne, could be much sexier and much more in the genre tradition than Fair Play, even though Deep Water features less actual sex.

There’s reason why even sharp critics are mislabeling Fair Play. Once the most disreputable of commercial film genres, the erotic thriller is enjoying a moment of reclamation and re-evaluation, thanks to influential critical voices like Wesley Morris and Karina Longworth grasping the nettle, as it were, in a series of fascinating, funny, and horny podcasts. It’s a fun bandwagon, and it’s natural to want to jump on it — particularly in the context of the strangely sex-free modern moviegoing experience. (Although that’s started to change, even since Fair Play’s Sundance debut: Films like Ira Sachs’ hypnotic Passages and, reportedly, Yorgos Lanthimos’ Poor Things are once again pushing the boundaries of on-screen sex, while even Christopher Nolan, of all people, is getting in on the act.)

Fair Play’s mislabelling is only a shame if it obscures what Domont actually achieved with the movie. It’s a sharp, ambiguous, trenchant film, with superb performances from Dynevor and Ehrenreich, and a menacing turn from Eddie Marsan as their boss. Ehrenreich, in particular, is fearless in a pathetic role that requires him to invert the hearthrob trajectory he had been on until someone made the terrible mistake of casting him as a young version of Harrison Ford.

And while Fair Play isn’t a thriller, it is thrilling to watch, especially in its volatile, horrifying final half-hour, which feels like it could go anywhere. In this movie’s airless, greedy, transactional world, toxic dynamics around gender and power set the rules. Sex doesn’t stand a chance.

Fair Play is streaming on Netflix now.

The next level of puzzles.

Take a break from your day by playing a puzzle or two! We’ve got SpellTower, Typeshift, crosswords, and more.