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  • Writer's pictureJamie

Challengers - Review

Challengers is stressfully sexy, keeping the tension for the entire 2 hour runtime through the fast paced action, sharp dialogue and natural chemistry between its main actors. I always appreciate a film that can make me care about something I have no real affinity for. Films like Challengers and The First Slam Dunk have both made me care deeply and primally about the outcome of a sports game. 

Through the music and time jumps, the story is kept so engaging that it's actually nice when it ends, you can take a breath and realise your own shortcomings as a non sexy tennis player in an impossibly complicated love triangle. 

Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) is a promising young tennis player who gets injured while playing, ending her career as a player, and starting her career as a coach. She trains Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), who she eventually marries. We see this in the opening stages of the film, before being thrown back into the past, where we see the origins of this relationship, one that is slowly developed through a complicated dynamic involving another tennis player, Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) who is lifelong friends with Art. They both pursue Tashi, showing interest in her at an after party to the US Open. 

This relationship is pieced together between the three characters slowly as we learn different aspects of them over a thirteen year time period, from the first meeting, to a game being played by Art and Patrick, in the present day. 

Their dynamic is tense, from the get go there is a competitive nature between the boys to get Tashi to like them. This tension never lets up, changing your focus from the love triangle, to the games being played and every little detail in between. The film never lets you settle in knowing how it might turn out, even though you know the present. 

I had incredibly high expectations for this film going in, with the lead up being trailers and posters and interviews and previews everywhere. It was hard not to feel like I could have been let down by it, but I am very pleased to report that I could not have prepared myself for the film I watched, one of the most confident presentations of a story I have seen in a long time. There was not one element of this film that didn’t feel completely sure in itself, with complete certainty, Luca Guadagnino and writer Justin Kuritzkes throw the story on the table and I can’t help but be in awe of it. Also a side note, Guadagnino’s next feature is also being written by Kuritzkes which equally excites and stresses me out.

While we’re shouting out Guadagnino’s repeat collaborators, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom is the cinematographer behind this film, working with Luca on Call Me By Your Name and Suspiria. There is a throughline with their work but I think Challengers is beyond. The camera work, like all the other elements of the film, is so confident in what it's doing that it's almost intimidating. Mukdeeprom is completely unafraid to try anything through the film, with intense closeups, slow-mo, timelapse and completely unique perspectives. We go from top down, far away shots of the action, to literally being the tennis ball, being whacked back and forth. 

Ordinarily, I find sometimes when creatives make the decision to try something new, especially when it's short lived, I am usually taken out of the action and confused by these choices. However, this film tries so much and does it so successfully that it makes it so exciting to watch, ramping up the tension of the games. 

This camera work is coupled with a super, mega, ridiculously high intensity soundtrack that blasts over not only montages but conversations at times. I had zero problems with hearing or understanding the dialogue under the soundtrack but my heart was having a hard time with it in those moments of high action and high BPM. I think the team of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are the perfect team for a film like this. Having worked with Luca on Bones and All, there is an understanding between them, but a knowledge from the pair in general, having worked on numerous projects with David Fincher. I can understand this brash soundtrack being a turn off for some people, with it being so in your face and sporadic but it worked for me, so it should for you. That’s how opinions work. 

The cast in the film are so natural with each other, feeling like there is an external chemistry between them, which lends itself so well to the story, giving their dynamic some believability and stakes. I was and always am impressed by Zendaya, she haas never let me down. Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor have a lot to do in the film, with a challenging relationship to showcase. They all do such a perfect job at conveying their characters that I would be completely unsurprised to turn on a tennis match and see them playing.

Luca Guadagnino is a filmmaker that always excites me, It will take a lot for me to not be first in line, for anything he is releasing. I was not the biggest fan of Bones and All but from how much I loved Challengers, there is no way I can’t go back and give it another chance. 

I know I’ve seen a film that’s going to stick with me when I don’t know how to follow it up, what to watch or listen to afterwards. My only choice is to go and watch Challengers again, and again, and then maybe one more time. 


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