Review – Challengers

Directed by Luca Guadagnino and written by Justin Kuritzkes, Challengers stars Zendaya as once-promising tennis star turned coach Tashi Duncan, who’s husband Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) is on a bad losing streak. To change the tide of his career, Tashi sets him up at a lower-grade challenger tournament, but Art ends up against Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor), his former best friend and Tashi’s former lover. The plot follows their one-on-one match in 2019, but also backtracks their complicated and toxic story of codependence, lust, and deception over 13 years.

Luca Guadagnino’s latest film, his first with writer Kuritzkes, crackles like an eternal fire of venomous passion, in a way that I have never seen from him. His previous work would tend to fit into categories of romance or psychological drama, often blending in elements of eroticism, coming-of-age storytelling, and brutal body horror. His camera tends to linger within scenes, drawing them out until their breaking point, and crafting a remarkably real mise en scène, almost always on celluloid. Much of this carries true in Challengers, but we are gifted to a director breaking free of many of his conventions at the same time, crafting one of the slickest, sexiest, and most seductively intense sports movies we have seen in a long time, maybe of all time.

Zendaya is front-and-centre in this twisted triptych, playing Tashi at different ages (18 to 31) and nailing each and every phase of her carefully coordinated life, a life she is so happy to try and destroy if it means one cool night of pleasure. The character could so easily be put in that “bunny boiler” box of the manipulative woman at the centre of a man’s life, but Zendaya, Guadagnino and Kuritzkes seem unhappy with this far-too conventional and demeaning notion. Tashi plays these white boys like chess pieces, sure, but Zendaya and the filmmakers play her out as this intentional yet vulnerable person, angry and dangerous but all coming from a place of weakness that the game of tennis already exploited beyond her control. She is bitter, spiteful and severe but open, honest, and caring, letting her heart decide even if it makes no sense. This is Zendaya’s year, having already become the heart and soul of Dune: Part Two and opposing that with this remarkable performance of someone you love to hate but hate to love.

The equally extraordinary Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor are her opposing players in this game of pleasure. These two are rising stars and scene-stealers in their own right, Faist for originating Dear Evan Hansen’s Connor Murphy on Broadway and dominating Spielberg’s West Side Story as Riff, and O’Connor with acclaimed British drama God’s Own Country and Prince Charles in seasons 3 & 4 of The Crown. Here, playing best friends turned enemies over one woman, their sexual chemistry is as undeniable as are their totally opposing styles of performance. Faist’s Art is just a nice guy, a meek and mannered white knight with nothing bad to say so he says nothing at all, while O’Connor’s Patrick is the bad boyfriend that people with poor willpower say they “can’t get rid of”. They are two different sides of the same coin, pushing and pulling against each other, and in another movie, this would be a star-crossed sports romance for the two. Fighting over the same woman who gives neither the time of day unless she wants something in return, we are gifted deliberately foolish and delightful performances from the two. Their chemistry is perfectly pitched, and as much as you may want them to leave Zendaya aside and be happier together, their battles on and off the court are a thrill to watch.

Challengers totally took me by surprise. Perhaps I had come to expect a particular type of film by Guadagnino by this point, for better or worse, but this was at all turns an electric and acidic rollercoaster that echoes the high points of erotic and sports cinema, together at last. Guadagnino and his cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom remind one of how Mike Nichols and Bruce Surtees shot The Graduate, pulling out every camera trick in the book to keep the audience on the edge of their seats constantly. Extreme close-ups, tracking shots, “down the lens” close-ups, 180-degree rule breaks, invisible tennis floors, shifting points of view from player to player, alternating frame rates, a double split-diopter shot that made my jaw drop, and at one point the camera just becomes a tennis ball, because why not? 

Challengers is a longer affair than expected, running a bit over 2 hours, but there is no dull moment. This is non-stop delicious and tantalizing drama, pulsating and sweating profusely, building and building until you can’t take anymore, all the while Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ electronic score gets the blood pumping all the way through, keeping everyone in the mood for a damn good time at the movies.

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Directed by Luca Guadagnino and written by Justin Kuritzkes, Challengers stars Zendaya as once-promising tennis star turned coach Tashi Duncan, who’s husband Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) is on a bad losing streak. To change the tide of his career, Tashi sets him up at...Review - Challengers