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  • Writer's pictureSaxon Whitehead

'Challengers': Romance and Tennis Collide in Scintillating Drama

There are few things more compelling than a good cinematic rivalry, and Luca Guadagnino's Challengers understands this very well. It exists at an interesting intersection of sports drama and twisted romance, and pits its characters against each other, both on the tennis court and off. This competition that takes place between our three leads is the driving force of the entire film, and is both sensual and gripping. Told through impeccably shot tennis matches, verbal confrontations and a whole lot of kissing, the film focuses on the love triangle between its core characters, and draws the viewer in from the very first frame. Aided by a boisterous techno score, Guadagnino's stylistic direction, and a trio of excellent performances, Challengers is a winning film that excels as both a thrilling sports movie and a steamy romantic drama.

Tennis star turned coach Tashi Duncan (Zendaya) has helped her husband, Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) become one of the biggest names in the sport. In the midst of a losing streak, Art's confidence begins to flag. Tashi signs him up for a Challenger event to try and get him back on top, and to help motivate him to a US Open win and a Career Grand Slam. At the event, Tashi and Art cross paths with Patrick Zweig (Josh O'Connor), a down on his luck player. The three have history together, as Patrick is both Art's old childhood friend and Tashi's ex-boyfriend. As Art and Patrick face off on the court, we see flashbacks of their relationships with each other and with Tashi. As the story unfolds, we see how their personal and professional lives have led them both to this intense match-up, and just how much all three of them have riding on it.

If there is anything that Luca Guadagnino is particularly gifted at, it is capturing intimacy on screen. This gift is fully on display here, as we not only see the physical intimacy between the three main characters, but the emotional intimacy as well. While the more sensual moments of the film are what most people will leave the theater talking about, it is the way Guadagnino captures the more mundane aspects of the relationships between the characters that stood out to me. A scene where Art and Patrick eat churros and have a conversation is given an interesting, almost erotic, layer of subtext through what the camera focuses on, and how it is acted by Mike Faist and Josh O'Connor. Another involving Zendaya silently sitting by a tree and considering her future also packs a wallop, mainly in how it is shot and acted. Guadagnino knows how to make every moment of this film count, and he doesn't waste a second. From start to finish, every little detail comes together to draw us into the lives of our three leads, and Guadagnino does a fantastic job of making even the smallest detail have its maximum effect.

What surprised me the most what how exhilarating the tennis sequences were. I've never been particularly interested in the sport, but this film certainly makes it look so exciting. Part of it is due to the drama surrounding the film's central match-up that we see segments of all throughout, but beyond that, the tennis scenes feel so visceral in how they are captured. Cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom uses the camera so beautifully in these moments, at times following each volley in the match, and at other times having the camera positioned in a way that makes it feel like the tennis ball is heading toward you. The tennis stuff in the third act is particularly thrilling, building up to a climactic sequence that made my jaw drop. The tennis sequences are stylized so well, and complements the relationship drama of the rest of the film beautifully.

Beyond the showier camerawork Mukdeeprom displays here, he also makes the more dialogue driven scenes look amazing. He utilizes Demme-esque close-ups in certain scenes, and captures the intimate moments between characters in a way that is both alluring and titillating. There is a simplicity to the way he shoots certain moments, yet these moments still have a major impact. Everything from the way Zendaya looks in a scene, to a small gesture that one of the characters makes, to the use of product placement feels magnified in the film, and is so brilliantly captured by Mukdeeprom.

One of the biggest takeaways from the film has to be the electrifying score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Reznor and Ross have become two of the most acclaimed film composers currently working, and their work here stands among their best. They get back to their electronic roots with this score, crafting thumping techno beats that fit the film like a glove. There are a couple of moments where it comes off a little distracting, but when the music is as good as what Reznor and Ross bring to the table, I can't complain too much. Not to mention that their original song Compress/Repress which plays over the credits is infectious. The film also has some pretty solid needledrops, especially in the earlier flashbacks. The score is an early contender for my favorite of the year, and I'll be surprised if anything else tops it.

Justin Kuritzkes's script gives the film such a strong foundation, and gives the film an interesting shape. I was surprised that the film uses a non-linear structure, but it works incredibly well for it. The switches between the tennis match between Art and Patrick and the flashbacks to various points in time allow the film to maintain a steady momentum. While it is easy to pick up on where certain parts of the story are heading, it never feels overly predictable, and the flashbacks are deployed nicely. I also really appreciated the dialogue in the film, as it pops and is rather direct. Kuritzkes definitely has a gift when it comes to screenwriting, and I'd like to see what else he's capable of.

The three lead performances are the backbone of the entire film, and all three actors give phenomenal performances. Zendaya once again shows why she is a star, giving a performance that is more grounded, yet has a quiet intensity that sears through the entire film. She delivers such intense lines with a hushed yet commanding tone, although she does have her moments where she lets loose a bit. Her presence is magnetic, to say the least, and this might be my favorite performance of hers yet. Mike Faist gives a wonderful turn as Art, playing a more sympathetic role compared to the other two. Faist blew me away in 2021's West Side Story and this film is an even bigger step up for him. He is able to do so much with the subtlest actions, and the way he plays off of his co-stars is fantastic. The film's biggest revelation for me was Josh O'Connor. I am not familiar with much of his work, so this film was an introduction of sorts for me. O'Connor certainly makes a serious impression, as he has a danger to him that is exciting, and adds an interesting flavor to the film. He feels like an outsider for much of the film, and has a sliminess that gives his character more dimension. And yet, you can't help but like him a little. There is something charming about the way O'Connor plays Patrick, even if he is a morally questionable character. It is a stunning performance that makes the case for him becoming one of our next big leading men, and truly blew me away.

Challengers is a film that I had high hopes for, and what we ended up getting exceeded my expectations greatly. It is one of the most engaging films I have seen all year, and had me hooked from its first shot. It is one of the steamiest mainstream films I've seen in a while, and manages to be a purely compelling drama at the same time. All three of its leads deserve to be stars after this, and each of them are early contenders for some of my favorite performances of the year. This film is sure to hit well with most audiences, although some might be a bit averse to some of its frank sexuality and unconventional storytelling. It is the type of film that had me ready to watch it again the moment it was over, and has some of the most fascinating rivalries I've seen on screen in a long time. Through its intimacy and exhilarating tennis, Challengers serves up an ace that left me buzzing.

Rating: 4.5/5

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