Sticking the word “fatal” in the title of a psycho-thriller about an extramarital encounter that spirals out of control inevitably invites comparison with the mother of all boiled-bunny infidelity nightmares, Fatal Attraction. Netflix’s Fatal Affair flips the gender on that formula, making the nutcase who will not be ignored a man with a violent personality disorder and mad hacking skills, while the woman is safely depicted as a loving wife who slams on the brakes just as her brush with philandering temptation is about to become a more serious transgression. The result is a passably entertaining diversion, glossy and decently acted but devoid of any kind of edge.
There might perhaps be some distinction in switching the targeted figures to a middle-class Black family in peril instead of the usual holy white matrimony. But like pretty much everything else in this predictable knockoff, that’s been done before. Remember Idris Elba and Beyoncé under attack from Ali Larter’s predatory office temp in 2009’s Obsessed? They probably don’t either.
Directed with journeyman efficiency by Peter Sullivan, who co-wrote the pedestrian screenplay with Rasheeda Garner, Fatal Affair doesn’t even have the lurid, trashy fun of some of its predecessors. It’s all quite dignified and tastefully bloodless aside from a prologue showing a couple’s evening of cozy fireside sex interrupted by a violent home invasion, the details of which are revealed much later.
A valued attorney at a San Francisco firm, Ellie Warren (Nia Long) is about to embark on a major lifestyle change, 20 years into her marriage to architect Marcus (Stephen Bishop). With their daughter Brittany (Aubrey Cleland) in her first year at Berkeley, they have sold up in the city and moved to an enviable modern home with its own private beach in a coastal California community where Ellie intends to start her own law practice.
Marcus is recovering from an accident, the nature of which is coyly withheld for no discernible reason, and he’s looking to ease back into work. The perfect dreamy movie husband down to his assortment of shawl-collar knitwear, Marcus reassures mildly apprehensive Ellie that the change will be good for them.
But as anyone who’s ever seen one of these movies knows too well, the house is just the kind of luxury pad where deranged stalkers tend to get past the alarm system and prowl around at night, sniffing lacy underwear and lifting strands of hair from pillows, before moving in for the all-out siege of the climactic stretch.
Ellie is wrapping up her final case with the city firm when tech consultant David Hammond (Omar Epps) is brought in to dig up dirt on the defendant. His memories of Ellie from college are more vivid than hers, and his flirty attentiveness makes no secret of his attraction to her.
After being stood up by her best friend Courtney (Maya Stojan) — whose thirsty good-time gal air would appear to set her up early on for victimhood — Ellie finds herself having drinks alone with David. In a rash moment of over-sharing, she confesses that despite her perfect marriage and life and home, she lately has found herself sleeping next to a stranger. Big mistake.
Two bottles of wine and some shots later, they are grinding away on the dance floor to Estelle’s “Please Set Me on Fire.” It obviously works, since Ellie hurries off to the restroom, flushed and confused. When David follows her, locking her in a passionate kiss, she doesn’t resist. But after some preliminary humping and clothing removal on the countertop, Ellie halts the action, saying it should never have happened as she makes a hasty exit.
No prizes for guessing what comes next, and the writers pose few challenges in that regard as they follow the boilerplate rules of the genre: rebuffed attempts at further contact, unanswered calls and texts, a blocked number, a stern warning to back off. David starts spying on Ellie at home and then infiltrates her life via people close to her. This prompts her to investigate his past, making an alarming discovery that has eluded the cops, while his history of anger-management issues is revealed in a court-ordered therapy session. Not wanting to go to the police and risk damaging her marriage, Ellie in turn starts following David as he becomes increasingly driven and the danger escalates.
Director Sullivan does a smooth enough job tracking the action and building a modicum of suspense with help from Eitan Almagor’s snaking camera and Matthew Janszen’s sinister score, though there are just too few surprises to make this anything more than polished Lifetime fodder.
Long (also one of the producers) anchors the movie with a sympathetic portrayal of a woman who regrets her moment of recklessness the instant it happens, and she has warm chemistry with Bishop’s Marcus. That doesn’t make the characters any less generic in a movie too anxious not to offend, mostly playing down the violence. Even Epps’ creepy David keeps the menace on a low simmer when a few explosions of unhinged rage might have perked things up. The song he associates with Ellie from his early days of unrequited college intoxication is Patrice Rushen’s “Forget Me Nots.” But that funky R&B groove won’t be quite enough to help anyone remember Fatal Affair.
Production company: Hybrid
Cast: Nia Long, Omar Epps, Stephen Bishop, Maya Stojan, Aubrey Cleland, Carolyn Hennesy, Fredella Calloway, Jacob Gaines, Kym Jackson, Lyn Alicia Henderson
Director: Peter Sullivan
Screenplay: Peter Sullivan, Rasheeda Garner; story by Sullivan, Jeffrey Schenck
Producers: Jeffrey Schenck, Barry Barnholtz, Nia Long
Director of photography: Eitan Almagor
Production designer: Darcy Scanlin
Costume designer: Marina Ray
Music: Matthew Janszen
Editor: Randy Carter
Casting: Donald Paul Pemrick, Dean A. Fronk