Netflix’s new psychological thriller Fair Play examines the sinister underbelly of the patriarchy—both in romantic relationships and at the office.
The film, which is writer-director Chloe Domont’s feature debut, follows a pair of employees at a cutthroat hedge fund. Emily (Phoebe Dynevor) and Luke (Alden Ehrenreich) are a couple who conduct a secret relationship behind their employer’s backs. When Emily receives a promotion that Luke hoped for, his damaged ego begins to manifest in increasingly alarming ways—ultimately boiling over at the film’s bloody climax.
For Domont, the story is a heightened examination of dynamics she’s observed in her own life, especially during a period when she was directing primarily male-dominated TV shows.
Chloe Domont [Photo: Sheryl Nields / Netflix]
“As I walked out of my front door, I would have to inflate my sense of self and inflate my confidence to survive in those workplaces,” Domont says. “Then as soon as I came back home at the end of the day, I would have to deflate again to survive at home, to calm myself down—all to protect the male ego.”
With Fair Play, Domont pushes patriarchal power dynamics to their extreme (yet, sadly, not implausible) ends. She spoke with Fast Company about the connection between romance and finance, treatment of women in the workplace, and female rage.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity, and contains light spoilers.
Where did you find the inspiration for Fair Play?
Life. This was a story that was burning inside of me and compounding for many years, whether I was aware of it or not. It was in my body, you know, and at a certain point it became a story that I couldn’t not tell. I think it really came from my experiences and personal relationships. As my career started to take off, I was just having this feeling over and over again, that each opportunity I got didn’t feel like a total win; it felt like a loss on some level, because of the kinds of men that I was dating. These were men who, on the one hand, adored me for my ambitions, for my talent, for everything that I was trying to do. But there was still this feeling that anytime I succeeded and they weren’t doing well, that me being big made them feel small. It became a pattern in many different relationships. It was something that was never talked about, it was just this unspoken tension that started to come out in really ugly, poisonous ways.
The film digs into how women aren’t allowed to celebrate their successes in the workplace, and are often made to doubt their own abilities. Can you speak more about that theme?
I do think, deep down, [Emily] knows that she deserves this—she works her ass off. For her, the trepidation is coming from a fear that her career will cost her her relationship, and that she cannot have both. It’s still this feeling that, even in 2023, a man’s success is always a win for the relationship, right? If he is promoted, they’re both celebrating him. But if it’s the other way around, it’s suddenly a threat. It’s not anything that’s talked about, it’s just felt. [Emily] feels it in her stomach. She gets the opportunity that she’s been working toward since she got out of school, and yet her first reaction isn’t excitement, it’s fear.
Alden Ehrenreich as Luke and Phoebe Dynevor as Emily in Fair Play. [Photo: Courtesy of Netflix]
Emily is constantly criticized for what she wears, whether it’s traditionally masculine or feminine. What were you trying to say about the expectations of a woman’s appearance in the workplace?
There’s no winning. I was trying to say that with the movie. [Emily] dresses in a way that she thinks she’ll be taken seriously. She puts on these suits, and sometimes they’re skirt suits, and sometimes they’re pant suits. That’s her armor in going to work and going to battle every day. At the same time, she also wants to hold on to her femininity. So she does that through these frilly blouses, or these silk shirts that, for her, are a way of being like, “I’m in a suit, I can dress like a man, but I’m still holding onto my femininity, which makes me feel good about myself.” That’s just literally her character. But something that she feels confident in is something that still gets used against her. I wanted to show that the margin of error for women is paper thin in that respect.
Why do you think the finance world was the best backdrop for this film?
There are a number of reasons. First of all, in relationships, you can behave immorally, but it’s still fair play. It’s the same thing with finance. People make immoral moves all day long, betting against companies and getting them to close and all that stuff. But it’s still fair, right? It’s fucked up, but it’s fair. All the ugliness that happens within relationships and love, and all the ugliness that happens within the world of finance—-it’s totally immoral, but it’s fair.
I would say there were a lot of other personal reasons why I wanted to set it there. My experience coming up in the [entertainment] industry, I felt like there was also a parallel to the finance world, because I had a lot of friends in that world, and it actually felt quite similar. The emotional stakes of it, you know—in the film and TV industry, there’s a lot of money on the table. Any given day when you’re shooting, if something goes wrong, you can cost production hundreds of thousands of dollars in a second, just from unforeseen circumstances. This is an industry that’s nothing but high highs and low lows, there is no feeling anything in the middle; you’re just fluctuating between either feeling like you’re on top of the world or feeling like you’re at the bottom of it.
Director of Photography Menno Mans and Writer and Director Chloe Domont. [Photo: Sergej Radovic / Courtesy of Netflix]
I was interested in how the corporate office space became so important to the movie’s tone.
Totally. I wanted to create this fishbowl feeling, where there’s no escape. So I said, “I don’t want any solid doors.” Everyone can always see each other. That is part of the mind games and the power play. [The boss] can see everyone in the room, he can see how well you’re doing your job at any given moment. I think part of that idea is that it puts pressure on [employees] in terms of performance.
In early scenes, Luke presents himself as a feminist. Yet, after Emily’s promotion, he seems to descend down a path of radicalization. How were you thinking about Luke’s arc?
For me, he represents many generations of men caught in the middle between wanting to adhere—and adhering in many ways—to a modern feminist society, but still having been raised on traditional ideas of masculinity. That’s where the tension is in workplaces and behind bedroom doors. That’s really what I wanted to sink my teeth into with this character, that on the one hand, he adores [Emily] because she’s intelligent, he adores her because she’s a killer, he adores her because he knows she’s ambitious, and she’s going to be successful. But at the same time, there’s this feeling that he needed to get there first, because of the way he was raised.
I’ve heard a lot about the concept of “female rage” recently, and I thought about that during the film’s climax, when Emily finally retaliates physically against Luke. How do you think Fair Play tackles the idea of female rage?
For me, [Emily] had to unleash that rage at the end of the movie because of all the abuse that she had endured. [Luke] has cut her down with emotional abuse, verbal abuse, and physical assault. She tries to use her words to get him to own up to his wrongdoing, but this is a man who refuses to be held accountable on any single level. [. . .] I think it’s the fact that after all that craziness, he’s acting like none of it happened. And also, he believes that he’s a victim in this whole thing. He believes that she robbed him of something he deserved. That’s really what triggers that final moment of female rage, where it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back.