Challengers REVIEW – What A Smash

Challengers is a smashing film, in more ways than one.

Challengers
Challengers

Challengers isn’t a serious tennis movie, so if you’re going into the movie expecting a sports drama, you’ll be disappointed. Instead, it’s using tennis as a metaphor to discuss the relationships between three people: Tashi (Zendaya), Art (Mike Faist) and Patrick (Josh O’Connor). The narrative is non-linear, and flows very much like a tennis match. We’re thrown back and forth between the past, the present, and the moments in between. It’s impressive that the story can flow like this and not confuse viewers, and director Luca Guadagnino uses visual cues like hair styles/lengths to help us keep track of where we’re at in the story.

In the present, Art and Patrick are facing off in the final in New Rochelle. Patrick’s life is down in the dumps, having to basically prostitute himself just to have a place to stay, while Art and Tashi’s marriage is sterile. All three are not in a good place in their lives, a far cry from how things were for them when they were 18. When the three first met, all of them were high off their wins at the US Open – Patrick and Art won together for the doubles, and Tashi’s win was so iconic that everyone knew she was going to be a star. Art and Patrick are riveted by the sight of her, on and off the court.

Tashi’s relationship with both men are so contrasting. With Patrick, it’s intense and dramatic – there’s a palpable ferocity to their interactions whenever they’re together, an animalistic chemistry borne out of their fiery personalities. But too much fire, however passionate and intoxicating, cannot work together for long. Art offers Tashi safety and stability. He is not as naturally gifted as Patrick when it comes to tennis, but he has the work ethic and is willing to push himself. He allows himself to be molded by her, which subsequently affects the dynamic of their relationship – Tashi is his coach more than his partner. Their relationship functions like a business transaction, with each of them performing their roles to expand their brand, dragging their feet through the embers of their relationship.

Challengers is such a fantastic movie because of the chemistry between Zendaya, O’Connor and Faist. We’re given extreme close-ups of each actor during their conversations together, which draws us into their world. You can feel the contrast between their younger and older selves – all that exuberant youthfulness fading to become a sterile world of broken dreams. Zendaya is perfection as Tashi. So much of her performance is non-verbal: we can feel her disappointment as she rubs lotion over the scars of her injured knee, her silent anguish when she realises the withered state of her marriage. Faist is very good, as well. He is immensely likeable as Art, and will have most viewers rooting for him even when he does some dubious things.

The standout performance in Challengers is actually Josh O’ Connor as Patrick. Patrick is a toxic douchebag who knows the type of person he is. He’s never been faithful to anyone but Art, and O’Connor is really able to channel how hurt Patrick is about the tatters of their relationship, even as he wears a shit-eating grin. The chemistry between Patrick and Art is electric, and Guadagnino really plays up the homoerotic elements in the film – teasing us with close-up shots of hearty bites of churros and bananas, as well as the constant moans on the tennis court – do I even need to mention all that ball play?

There’s a variety of stylized shots in Challengers, and while not everything works, I love that the movie takes risks with its cinematography. There’s some ground level shots of their calves while playing, and even a low angle shot that feels like the ground is made of glass as we’re able to look up at Art and Patrick as they bounce the tennis ball on the ground. The techno beats of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score is hypnotic, and complements the cinematography so well, though we could chill a bit on the amount of slow-mos. There are also many visually parallel moments in the film that help flesh out the relationships between the characters, like the contrasting make-out sessions against a car, and callbacks to earlier moments that work so well – if you know, you know.

Trust me when I say that the final sequence of the film kept every single audience member on the edge of their seat. Good cinema makes you feel something while you’re watching, and Challengers succeeds wholeheartedly.

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Challengers
Verdict
Challengers is truly sexy stuff. The cast is stellar, the score fantastic, and the story is paced like the most riveting game of tennis. Simply put, Challengers is game, set, smash.
10