Challengers review: Zendaya, Josh O'Connor, and Mike Faist get entangled in a sexy love triangle - 5 minutes read

Tennis is notoriously not a sport that lends itself well to the medium of film. The tension in this game is all about the silent moments between points, and continuously hitting a small ball with a racquet doesn’t make for exciting entertainment. But director Luca Guadagnino and screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes have found a fascinating entry point: a tumultuous love triangle in which tennis is incidental to the story. Challengers, seemingly about three tennis players, is actually about three characters who play love like a tennis match, to get ahead and reap the rewards they want.

The framework of the film is an important match in the careers of Patrick (Josh O’Connor) and Art (Mike Faist), rivals and former best friends. Between them is Tashi (Zendaya), former girlfriend of one and current wife and coach of the other. In flashbacks, the audience gets to know how they met 13 years ago and how their lives became intricately intertwined with each other. Guadagnino has always been attuned to capturing the fiery emotional undercurrents of relationships, as he proved in movies like I Am Love and Call Me By Your Name. For many of his characters, desire is their raison d’etre and the driving force of their narrative arc. In Kuritzkes’ screenplay desire is a weapon daringly, and sometimes manipulatively, used by the three protagonists. Seems like a perfect alignment of talent.


For the most part that is true. Kuritzkes’ screenplay is full of many instances where dialogue recedes to the background and the characters converse in looks and subtext. Guadagnino frames his three actors in many close-ups and medium shots where their eyes and the way they ogle each other tell the story. In return, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s camera ogles the actors’ bodies, capturing every flicker of light in their eyes, every trembling lip and sweaty brow. All of this makes for a movie high on sexual heat, something not seen much in contemporary American cinema.

To imitate the constant back and forth of tennis, the script relies on verbal callbacks. A character will mention a throwaway phrase foreshadowing a situation, and later on, that same phrase is repeated by the same character. Only this time, it’s actually truthfully describing what happens. This veers close to a schematic writing clutch, but works nonetheless. It knowingly lets the audience in on the private jokes of the characters. Challengers is not a glamorous depiction of tennis; rather, it’s a movie about what happens behind the scenes in crowded locker rooms, smelly dorms, and anonymous antiseptic hotel bars and hallways.

For the tennis matches, Guadagnino has a few tricks up his sleeve. First is Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ loud, thumping music. Then, the slowing down of many scenes to an almost standstill to show every nuance of movement on the actors’ faces while ignoring the uninteresting small yellow balls. These methods succeed only intermittently. The music becomes oppressive and intrusive in many instances and the freeze frames become too much to handle when they appear even in the non-tennis scenes. Both elements, however, make the final match that frames the whole movie exciting and carry the audience over to a satisfactory climax.

CHALLENGERS | Official Trailer 2

Zendaya, O’Connor, and Faist play off each other charmingly, particularly in the flashbacks when their characters are younger. Those scenes are lively and jocular and the three actors bring into them combustible chemistry. In one long seduction scene, Guadagnino and his three actors manage the kind of long, sexy kiss that hasn’t been seen on screen since Alfred Hitchcock prolonged Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant’s kisses to satisfy the censors in Notorious.

As the characters age and their relationships become more complex, the performances begin to feel less distinct. Zendaya’s Tashi is perhaps the most complex character she’s tackled in her career so far. The threads that connect the character’s motivations are not always neatly tied, as if she’s playing it one scene at a time. Tashi is fun and laid back in one scene, then manipulative and even sinister in the next. Obviously, multitudes exist in all people, but as played by Zendaya, Tashi seems like many different women rather than one coherent character. Faist has a grounded, warm screen presence that fits his character, an everyman with much less sharp edges than the other two. O’Connor, as a tennis bad boy fallen on hard times, has the flashiest character, and he brings to it an entrancing insouciance that makes him the center of attention. Sometimes a cliché phrase is the only way to describe a performance: he steals the film.

Veteran filmmaker Guadagnino and newcomer Kuritzkes make for a mostly successful partnership. Kuritzkes’ screenplay might be too wordy for what we are used to from Guadagnino, but it has enough room for him to use his trademark methods and try new ones. Some of the new tricks he uses excessively, lessening their overall impact. Still, Challengers remains an entertaining movie thanks to its complicated characters who are played by actors on their way to becoming sparkling screen stars.

Source: The A.V. Club

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