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If a thriller is only about as good as its villain, “Fatal Affair” is in sad shape. In this latest Netflix movie from Peter Sullivan, director of “Secret Obsession,” Omar Epps plays a guy who is obsessed over his college friend Ellie (Nia Long), and yet you'd never be able to tell it from his performance, or the bland thrills that follow. Their game of cat-and-mouse is not meant to be original in the slightest, but there's no good reason for it to be this dull.
For Long’s San Francisco lawyer Ellie, the thrill is gone from her marriage. When candles surround the amiable dinner she shares with her husband Marcus (Stephen Bishop), it’s more a symbol of how the power has gone out in their marriage than anything else. Along comes new co-worker and old college friend David (Omar Epps), reappearing from 20 years in the past, with some smooth compliments and a predatory gaze on her from their first hello. Soon enough they get drinks at a bar, and go to a club, where he indulges her with a great distraction, and asks her why they didn't go out in college. They both push it, having different long-games, and it sends them to a bathroom. For about 10 charged seconds—barely constituting an affair, mind you—she makes a mistake she’ll have to pay for by living through a stalker nightmare.
Elle snaps out of it this daze real hard, and gets back to her regular life—so much so that by the time a montage is over, she’s got that firm she wanted, her new beach house seems even brighter, and better yet, she’s back to rumpy-pumpy with Marcus on the regular. David is a fling of the past, until he suddenly pops up one day, acting as if the two simply lost touch and should still be together. He doesn't respect her boundaries when she tells him to stay away, and starts to get close to her and her friends, while their shared secret looms over her.
"Fatal Affair" is a time-killing thriller that only works at the bare minimum, its few surprising elements not making the movie worthy of a viewing, but deserving of a shout-out nonetheless. There’s a bizarre story beat with David, a homeless man, and a gasoline tank that I was not expecting. And there’s a brief time when Ellie and Marcus approach the elephant in the room in a way that enriches their characters, and has a surprising tenderness. Long is an all-star actor, and these scenes show a glimmer of that.
Epps, on the other hand, is best as a silent silhouette, which is more of a compliment to his posture and blocking from co-writer/director Peter Sullivan. He makes a few mildly menacing moments when he stands in the background, but get close up to his eyes and you see little than an actor who is so visibly bored with his gig. Epps gives little care to already-silly dialogue like, “Actually, I’m a hacker,” a bit of character development you might miss from laughing so hard. He’s more believable if you look at him like a terminator programmed by the textbook definition of "narcissistic personality disorder."
But this is a story in which only lazy screenwriting can explain how Ellie gets access to David’s apartment, or how David’s obtains security footage from the nightclub that he uses for blackmail. With all of this convenience, it’s disappointing that the story doesn’t do much with it except place David near Ellie and those she loves, making for lukewarm sequences of him being a threat. For just a few seconds, it sincerely tries to build up tension that he might use a putter as a murder weapon on a golf course. The movie builds this could-be murder scenario to a massive shoulder shrug, not even a playful made-you-look, and just slogs on.
Credit where credit is due, “Fatal Affair” is at least hornier than it is thrilling, even if most of those hormones are spent with the sickening optics of a sociopath getting what he wants. From the very first contact that Ellie and David share, the editing makes sure we notice the touches—when she goes for a paper in his hands in the office, there’s a big close-up, same with a moment later on when he pulls the “hand on the small of back” move as they sit down for fateful cocktails. And for a Netflix movie that’s restricted by its TV-14 rating, it replaces nudity with some suggestive positions, more abrasive close-ups, and fleeting images of clothed adults doing what they do in bed. Again, it’s mostly through the eyes of a narcissist stalker sociopath, but those are the kind of banal indulgences “Fatal Affair” can muster.
Now streaming on Netflix.