top of page

'Challengers' Review

Star_rating_0_of_5 (1).png
April 12, 2024
Hunter Friesen
  • Instagram
  • Letterboxd
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn

If there’s one thing that Luca Guadagnino understands about sports, it’s the sex appeal. Muscles are perpetually firm and clenched, sweat hangs on the brow and slips off perfectly chiseled jaws, and outbursts of enthusiasm share the same primal feelings from the bedroom. It’s something that Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) alludes to early in Challengers, calling tennis “a relationship.” There are moments in a match where the competitors aren’t on Earth anymore, rather, they’re on another plane of existence fully intertwined.

Of course, Guadagino finding the eroticism in something shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with his filmography. This is the same man who looked at a peach and knew just what to do with it in Call Me By Your Name, and also found a tender way to express the intersection between pleasure and violence in his (vastly superior) remake of Suspiria and Bones and All. There’s always a beautiful balance between every emotion within his films, pulling you in deep while also keeping you guessing at what’s going to happen next.

Challengers follows that same strategy, with Guadagnino veering his sights away from the arthouse and into the multiplex with his most commercial project yet. But fear not any of you who think he’s “going Hollywood,” as there are still several moments where his poetic past merges with the visual panache that a studio allows. Take for instance the pivotal tennis match between Tashi’s husband Art (Mike Faist) and her former boyfriend/his former best friend Patrick (Josh O’Connor). The camera takes the form of all shapes and sizes, morphing seamlessly between the first-person viewpoints of the competitors, the tennis ball, and the spectators. Then the camera will swirl and burrow itself underneath the surface to give a worm’s eye view (I guess that’s the best way to describe it) of the action. It’s all so relentless and highly energizing, effortlessly capturing the kinetic rhythm of the match.

But how did we get to this match of former friends and lovers now turned enemies? It all began a little over thirteen years ago when Art and Patrick were dominating the doubles junior circuit in their senior year of high school. After one of the victories, they decide to hang back and watch the next match, which just so happens to feature Tashi Duncan, the most talked-about phenom on the scene. “It wasn’t even tennis, it was a completely different sport,” says Art, with both him and Patrick awestruck by her magnetism on and off the court. A litany of poke-and-jab flirtations continues throughout the night, capping with the beginning of a years-long ménage à trois.

Through a series of tragedies and screw-ups, Tashi prematurely retires from tennis and takes up the position of Art’s coach and wife. Patrick goes his separate way on the professional tour, sporadically coming back into the fold to remind everyone of the good ol’ days. “When we were teenagers” is a line said by each of them to excuse the past, but none of them seem to be over it.

One of the wonderful things about Justin Kuritzkes’ script (his feature debut!) is its ability to keep things fresh while dizzyingly spinning in circles. Much of that comes from the complex structure of the proceedings, almost emulating a Christopher Nolan-esque style by jumping back and forth within the thirteen years. One moment you’re on the court during the pivotal match, the next you’re in the Stanford dormitory, being given a clue to a payoff later down the road.

There are no lines or roles for supporting players, just the central trio, meaning there’s a limited amount of combinations for character interactions. There’s a snapping bite to much of the dialogue, which doesn’t try to emulate the pace of Aaron Sorkin's dialogue, but instead lets a moment hang between words. But when things do get rapid, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ incredible rave-like score is right there to push things over the edge.

Not that there was much debate beforehand, but between Dune: Part Two and this, Zendaya has reached the level of a certified movie star. The confident vulnerability of Chani extends here, being combined with a physically athletic swagger. She’s a chess master forced to play with her hands tied behind her back, but that challenge only emboldens her flare. Faist steps into a role all fans of Steven Spielberg’s 2021 remake of West Side Story dreamt of. He and O’Connor certainly level up with their work here, with a special mention also going to casting director Francine Maisler for recruiting performers who can seamlessly switch between the ages of 18-34. And Gudagnino certainly knows what people want to see with these actors on the court, incorporating almost as much slow-motion as Zack Snyder, something that I didn’t think was possible.

In his ironically typical fashion, Guadagnino will quickly pivot from Challengers over to an adaptation of William S. Burroughs Queer, telling the story of an insecure and haunted gay former GI played by Daniel Craig. Consistency in subject matter and filmmaking techniques may not be in Gudagnino’s wheelhouse, but the outcomes always turn out the same: excellent. 2024 will surely be his year, and we’re all going to have a fun time basking in it.

'Back to Black' Review

Everything has been scrubbed with disinfectant several times over, leaving behind a product so basic that you’d barely get the impression that this person was special at all.

'I Saw the TV Glow' Review

I can’t get it out of my head, and that’s what’s most important.

'Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes' Review

It rises above the notion that it’s an unnecessary addition, as it reaches for newer relevant themes in a world turned upside down.

'We Grown Now' Review

Faults aside, "We Grown Now" still has some powerfulness as it brings eyes to a part of an iconic city that’s unknown to outsiders.

'Unfrosted' Review

It’s all a farce that makes for an inoffensive 90 minutes on Netflix.
bottom of page