FATALE: A Suy Thriller Lacking Heat

The trailer for Fatale, the most recent film from Deon Taylor, previews a mysterious, action-packed caper the likes of which you have not seen since your last Deon Taylor film. In it, Michael Ealy’s character, Derrick, offers a cautionary proverb: “Life is a road, straight and narrow. Stay on the road, and it will take you safely home. But make a wrong turn…and you will meet the darkness.”

Wise words.

Derrick’s “wrong turn” is his one-night stand with an enticing, mysterious woman (Hillary Swank). It’s his sole transgression in seven years of marriage. “Darkness” awaits him at the end of a series of strange hijinks manufactured by his scorned hookup – who is, by the way, a police detective assigned to his new home invasion case. C’est la vie.

But Fatale is not as sleek, sexy or stylish as it bills itself, and the topsy-turvy road of twists it promises feels more like a straight path toward a lukewarm ending. At least it’s a painless way to spend one hour and forty-five minutes.

“You shouldn’t have come to Vegas…”

There is beauty to be found in storylines crafted from experiences you cannot relate to, which is just one of the reasons why the Academy has tepidly decided to consider diverse storylines as a mark of quality as opposed to a byproduct of choice. That being said, the guiding anxieties of Fatale are so masculine and heteronormative they were largely lost on me. Take that as a disclaimer.

FATALE: A suy thriller lacking heat
source: Lionsgate

It goes like this: Derrick is a rich, powerful sports marketing agent and ex-athlete with a beautiful, successful wife. But the spice of their marriage is missing, and worse, Derrick has a sneaking suspicion that Traci (Damaris Lewis) is stepping out on him. Naturally, that means he must go to Las Vegas and immediately cheat on her. Look, he doesn’t make the rules.

Contrary to the warning he gives in the trailer, this is not Derrick’s only “wrong turn.” He is, in fact, very good at making bad decisions, although few are due to any flaw of his own. No, Fatale makes it clear Derrick is a good man who has been temporarily led astray by bad influences, like his ambitious business partner and friend, Rafe (Mike Colter), or the suy Detective Val Quinlan. After their night together, Val treats Derrick’s obvious remorse with playful scorn. He didn’t want to get down and dirty? Well, he obviously “shouldn’t have come to Vegas,” then. She’s unhinged, sure, but at least she’s got spunk.

On the other hand, we have Derrick’s transient characterization. He is apparently unable to make nuanced, morally grey decisions with conviction, which softens the blow of scandal. And it’s hard to feel sexy about the movie’s storyline when Ealy spends most of its runtime looking like a kicked puppy. Funny in theory, but a downfall to the story as a whole.

This brings about the obviously deep-seated fear that this movie feeds on, is that even the perfect man can fall prey to the machinations of a seductive, evil woman. This is no secret or extrapolation. Really, it’s right there in the title; this is another take on the femme fatale, whose sole purpose in life is to drag men to the depths of depravity with sex and violence. Be still my beating heart.

FATALE: A Suy Thriller Lacking Heat
source: Lionsgate

After Val comes back into Derrick’s life as Detective Quinlan, she starts a confusing game of cat and mouse that is probably supposed to be erotic. She likes to show up at his house unannounced and leave him threatening phone calls, all while maintaining a farce of normalcy while in public. The audience is left to guess at Val’s motives through the sparing details we’re offered about her. She is a failed mother, she is a stalker, she is a recovering alcoholic. Do you get it yet? She’s evil.

Truthfully, the terror of Swank’s character comes not from her apparently irresistible sex appeal or crazed demeanor, but from the power she wields and abuses as a police detective. Her backstory, revealed to us through a suspenseful Google search, includes misconduct that has been conveniently swept under the rug by fellow members of the force. It’s no surprise that she reigns terror upon Derrick and his black friends and family so easily.

The Fatale flaw

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Swank, the seductive and dangerous Detective Quinlan, brings off-kilter grace to a character who screams for over-the-top madness. Her languid stares and awkward pauses are not quite the image of psychosis that Taylor clearly hopes for and, unfortunately, it taints the entire film’s success.

The misfortune is ours, as the audience is doomed to 102 minutes of understated confusion when we were promised absolute chaos. It makes a significant difference. Fatale’s story hinges on our belief that Detective Quinlan is off the rails, but as it stands, she seems…just kind of weird? Given that Swank is an acting powerhouse who has provided wilder performances with about half the screen time, it comes off as a misguided directorial choice. 

FATALE: A suy thriller lacking heat
source: Lionsgate

Really, the direction feels awry in many ways here. We see neither Swank nor Ealy react dramatically, or interestingly, or at all, to the roller coaster of their lives. For a film that seeks sleekness at all costs, it comes off as subdued and stilted. These bland performances unfortunately bar Fatale from finding refuge among those rare movies that are so bad, they’re good.

More entertaining turns are thankfully provided by Colter and Tyrin Turner, who plays Derrick’s cousin and confidante also named Tyrin. Although both are vital to the plot of Fatale, their relative distance from its most “dramatic” scenes provides room for them to be funny or endearing in turns. These brief moments of reprieve are not enough to save a film, but they’re a nice change of pace nonetheless.


If you watched the trailer for Deon Taylor’s most recent film and thought “I swear I’ve seen that movie before,” you’re almost certainly right – you have! There are few surprises to be had here in a film bloated with talent but lacking the chops to make good use of it. If you also thought, “I don’t care; I’ll enjoy it anyway” congrats, you’re right again. There’s no shame in enjoying what Fatale provides, which is a brief, convoluted thriller. Is it sexy? Not really. Is it even thrilling? Not particularly. But it is inoffensive, which is something.

What is the most successful film in the “femme fatale” subgenre? Do you think Fatale executed (or subverted) the genre’s tropes well? Discuss in the comments!

Fatale was released on December 18, 2020, and is available on VOD.

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