Warning: Spoilers for the end of Fatal Affair are ahead.
It may be a Netflix film, but Fatal Affair has big Lifetime movie energy. The thriller stars Nia Long as Ellie, who soon finds herself the target of a dangerous stalker, who just happens to be a friend from her past: David (Omar Epps). It's clear what we're getting ourselves into from minute two of the film, when a woman walks into the bathroom expecting some sexytime with her lover only to find him dead in a bathtub of water dyed red with his blood. Then a mysterious figure (David) grabs her from behind and the movie cuts to the present day and an entirely new set of characters. But despite this dramatic set-up, by the time you reach the end of Fatal Affair, you might feel like you’re watching an entirely different movie.
The first murder isn't explained until about halfway through, when Ellie learns that her college friend David was married to the woman who was taken. She and her new boyfriend were murdered not long after she had divorced David. Gee, I wonder why that could be. Ellie was already suspicious that David was not the nice guy he claimed to be, since he was repeatedly texting her, stalking her outside of meetings, and once showed up uninvited to dinner as her friend Courtney's (Maya Stojan) date just to get closer to Ellie. For us, the alarm bells went off even earlier when David told her he took a job at her company knowing that Ellie already worked there. "I hope you don't mind," he said. (Spoiler: She should have minded.)
Once Ellie realizes murder is on the table, she becomes terrified for herself, her family, and her friend. Unfortunately, she is also at David's mercy: After a night of drinking, she danced with him and kissed him, and David is threatening to reveal her infidelity to her husband Marcus (Stephen Bishop). To make matters worse, her friend Courtney believes David’s lies about the moment: He says Ellie came onto him. It helps that he is (rather conveniently) a professional hacker who was able to fabricate texts to convince Courtney to trust him over her lifelong best friend.
Instead of going to the cops, Ellie — like any Lifetime-style heroine worth her salt — takes the investigation into her own hands. She sneaks into David’s apartment to look at his computer. The password is her own name, which she immediately guesses. David may be a professional hacker, but he's also so dangerously obsessed with Ellie that he would sacrifice his security for “love.” Once she gains access to his laptop, Ellie sees a file of photos taken of her without her knowledge. Armed with the proof that he is really stalking her, Ellie ramps up her effort to warn Courtney about David.
But before Ellie can get to Courtney's house, David attacks Courtney and flees. Courtney survives with a concussion, and the authorities tell Ellie that they will catch David. With his deadly presence looming, Ellie finally comes clean about everything to her husband — including the brief affair. He doesn't exactly forgive her, but he does tell her that she's stuck with him. Ah, romance. Meanwhile, to escape from the police, David stages his own death by suicide using a homeless man as a body double. We don't see it happen on screen, but it's suggested that David switched their clothes, planted a suicide note, and then set a completely innocent person on fire as a means of faking his own death. It's one of the most stomach-churning events in the film, and it's barely treated as an aside. Horrifying methods aside, it works: Ellie and her family think David is dead.
But from the moment Ellie turns to her husband on Thanksgiving eve and says "Look at this. It's perfect," while staring out over the ocean at her daughter and her boyfriend hanging out in the sand, we know it’s about to go down. She may as well have said, "What could go wrong?" So next, something goes wrong. Cue a text from her receptionist Linda (Estelle) asking Ellie to come into the office to sign something. It's one of those classic horror movie moments when we are all screaming at the characters, but unfortunately Ellie can't hear us, no matter how sure we are that the text is the work of David. She goes anyway.
The office is dark when she arrives, and she seems mildly concerned about that — especially because Linda isn’t there. Nervous, Ellie flees, but not before literally stumbling upon Linda's body. That's when David calls Ellie to taunt her about leaving her family alone at home. Ellie hops in her car and speeds all the way home, calling the cops on the way, but she arrives before any units do. Ellie's husband Marcus and daughter are nowhere to be found, but David is front and center listening to a broken record of Patrice Rushen's "Forget Me Nots." The lyrics are wobbly and warped thanks to the distorted vinyl, so the scene is pretty eerie until David starts awkwardly dancing, rendering him a lot less scary for a moment. He even does a little spin that allows Ellie to grab a knife. Classic villain mistake, David.
This sets off a series of struggles between Ellie and David that end with her breaking a vase over his head. Ellie assumes David is out cold and finds her husband and daughter tied up in the bedroom. It doesn't really make sense that David didn't kill them — he killed her daughter’s boyfriend, who’s now lying dead on the patio. Then again, not much that murderous David does makes a ton of sense. But remember this seemingly uncharacteristic moment, because it facilitates the movie's sudden twist at the end.
But for now, Ellie frees her family and tells them that David is upstairs… so they all proceed upstairs, instead of getting the hell out of the house. David is now missing, which means he's survived having a vase smashed over his head, as murderers always seem to in these kinds of movies.
Outside is the body of the police officer sent to help them — David really bounced back quickly from that head injury. Marcus tells their daughter to get in her car and go, even though they could have just all gotten in the car together and left the deranged murderer behind. But then there wouldn’t be 10 more dramatic minutes of action scenes, so...
As Ellie radios for help, David appears and grabs her. In an attempt to stop David, Marcus is thrown from the balcony. He is somehow completely fine. Ellie stabs David and then leaves the knife in him, because sure, why not give David another weapon? Ellie and Marcus run up what seems to be a thousand steps to the top of the cliff overlooking their beachside mansion — a true nightmare scenario is running up a bunch of rickety wooden steps with a murderer on your tail.
David catches up and points the dead officer’s gun at Ellie; he says he won’t hurt her and that they can still run away together. Ah, the delusions of a psychopathic stalker.
Right on cue, Marcus sneaks up from behind and the two of them tussle while Ellie helps out with a large tree branch. Eventually the fighting escalates and David is almost pushed off the cliff. When she sees that he's about to fall, Ellie screams and grabs David's hands. To be clear: She actually risks falling off the cliff herself to save the man who has literally been trying to kill her whole family and has already murdered at least six people. This is probably supposed to show us that Ellie isn't like David, but we already know about a hundred reasons why Ellie isn't like a blackmailing murderous stalker. Anyway, despite her attempt to save David, he slips and falls to his death.
And just like that, the movie cuts suddenly from Ellie sobbing into Marcus’ arms in the dead of night on the cliff overlooking David's body to a sunny day two months later. Ellie and her family are like a new family, totally over all the trauma they suffered that night; it's like the vicious string of murders never happened. Ellie’s daughter packs up her car and heads back to college, while Marcus, in a good-natured tone, reminds her to wear a seatbelt. He's just a regular dad! He totally didn't have to wrestle a man to save his family's life a handful of weeks ago! Ellie and Marcus wave goodbye and Marcus asks Ellie what she wants for dinner. She wants steak. They profess their love for each other and talk excitedly about moving back to the city together, and the movie closes on a shot of the "for sale" sign on their house. They're putting the past in the rearview mirror and their relationship on the road ahead. It's almost like David was just a high stakes marriage counselor, because now everything is A-OK in Ellie and Marcus Land.
The abrupt tonal shift might be the most shocking twist in this movie. Thrillers don't often give so much closure, so I was waiting for there to be some sort of sequel tease — maybe Ellie's daughter would meet her own college stalker like her mother, or perhaps David wasn't really dead. But, nope. It got an ending that reads more like “Happily Ever After” than “We barely escaped with our lives.” Long doesn't even have a moment where she casts a haunted, contemplative stare into the distance.
This movie started off with distinct Lifetime-style thriller vibes (need I remind you we see a bloody corpse in a bathtub two minutes in), but in the end, we are dropped into Hallmark romance about a couple finding their way back to each other. Farewell, traumatic Thanksgiving massacre; hello, happy married couple rekindling their love.
So, in a way, this movie kind of has it all.