Cheating Thriller ‘Fatale’ Turns Hilary Swank Into the One-Night Stand From Hell

What happens in Vegas does not stay in Vegas for successful sports agent Derrick (Michael Ealy) in “Fatale.” If only this thriller were as good as that premise. It’s another parable about spouses going astray and bringing back home serious trouble. Watching a good movie in this genre should have the feel of feverishly scrolling through some tabloid gossip. Instead it’s a well-shot bit of glossy filmmaking where the director feels too timid to deliver on the melodrama. Even the title is much too sexy for what is delivered after the opening credits. What does have plenty of are characters we feel little for, even when they hide their wedding rings and take a knife to the back to pay for their ways. 

But back to Derrick, who is a successful Los Angeles sports agent and former college athlete living the life few renters in the city will ever know. His domain is a gorgeous house up in the Hollywood Hills where he lives with gorgeous wife Traci (Damaris Lewis), who bemoans that he’s away at work so often. He (not incorrectly) clarifies it’s the only way to maintain their lifestyle. Off he goes for business to Las Vegas, where while getting a drink at a club he meets Valerie Quinlan (Hilary Swank). Valerie is letting off some steam from her stressful job in Los Angeles. Soon enough they’re in her hotel room and the next morning, full of post-cheating guilt, Derrick lies and says he has to get to Seattle. Oh but what bad luck this cheater has. Soon after returning home a potential assassin breaks into Derrick and Traci’s home. Coming over to investigate is Valerie, who happens to be an LAPD detective. We soon learn Valerie has some serious personal issues stemming from a heated divorce and custody battle. Of course she will do her job and investigate Derrick’s case, but she will soon expect some payback for the way he used her.

“Fatale” has a curious lack of understanding what constitutes a good obsession, psycho-sexual thriller. There needs to be a very clear twisted reasoning behind why one character becomes so enraptured by their target. In something like “The Crush” a student becomes fixated on a professor, and in those classic guilty pleasures like “Fatal Attraction,” a wealthy man tends to sleep with the wrong woman who then feels spurned. There’s little reasoning for what happens in “Fatale” except that when Valerie arrives at Derrick’s home to investigate the break-in, she realizes he was lying about his true identity in Vegas. Was it a scumbag move? Most definitely, but it’s not as if she hinted at wanting anything more than a one-night stand. In the morning she even makes Derrick have sex with her again in order to unlock the room safe where she hid his cell phone. Director Deon Taylor is thus left having to figure out how to make David Loughery’s bare bones screenplay work. He certainly makes it look good with cinematography by the great Dante Spinotti, who brings out the neon gloss of Los Angeles. 

Taylor and Loughery could have made this into a twisted tale of obsession and lying gone wrong. The premise of Derrick finding himself investigated by the woman he lied to after a hook-up in Vegas has endless potential for satire, dark comedy, revenge thriller as social commentary on gender, you name it. Instead “Fatale” becomes the movie equivalent of a speedily-written dime novel or late night throwaway on cable TV. There’s little sympathy to be had for any of these characters. Derrick might be the more reasonable. He obviously feels guilty over his actions and isn’t a tyrant at home. This is not a feminist movie by any means. Consider that all the women characters either nag over unrealistic demands or are completely insane. Traci nags that Derrick is never home but has some dirty laundry in the closet that Valerie is all too happy to uncover. Valerie is haunted by a terrible accident involving her child and her service weapon, which was simply left laying around at home. Her custody battle with an ex who happens to be a local government official, feels like a completely different movie. Once she forces Derrick into her scheme for revenge the movie completely goes off the rails. It descends into that territory of an LAPD detective being able to stage an elaborate double murder to then lay it on you in a way where you have no way of proving your innocence. Her reasoning for doing this to Derrick? She’s going to use him the way he used her in sin city. Most of us can agree that’s a bit extreme considering they were both consensual adults during their brief tryst. Be careful who you swipe. 

The rest of “Fatale” develops the way you would sadly expect. A few clumsy sex scenes are thrown in with that kind of fake steaminess written as if the author has never had a decent naughty fantasy. The actors are efficient pros and do what they can with the dialogue. Michael Ealy looks worried and wealthy, acting very slick one moment and then becoming a nervous wreck the next. Hilary Swank switches from a cheerful one-night stand to a deranged maniac convincingly, even if the script doesn’t set it up well. The best she has to work with in this movie is the required moment where she goes bonkers on someone with a butcher knife. Swank, who broke into the scene with the amazing “Boys Don’t Cry” and has starred in great films like “Million Dollar Baby,” might be reaching that career stage where her agent needs to find that golden comeback script. At least everyone else in the cast seems to be having fun drinking champagne and playing the kinds of “best friends” who then sleep with your spouse.

Amazingly enough, the very final moments of “Fatale” seem to be arguing that this is a movie about how cops frame innocent Black males. This is indeed a worthy subject for a movie. Steve McQueen’s “Mangrove” is available right now on Amazon Prime for your viewing. But after an hour and forty minutes of rich people cheating on each other and a lunatic cop trying to frame and stab her way to full custody of her child, trying to pack a socio-political message feels like just extra clutter in a thriller that can’t even get the erotic part right. “Fatale” is playing in select cities right now and is not worth a dose of Covid. If you truly feel compelled to see it just wait for a VOD release. It is an affair without spice or guilty pleasure.

Fatale” releases Dec. 18 on VOD.