Film reviews and more since 2009

Challengers (2024) review

Dir. Luca Guadagnino

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★★

Just like any casual or professional tennis match, Challengers starts with love.

Luca Guadagnino’s latest is a seductive, erotic thriller-esque look at the game of tennis through the eyes of three unique players entwined in a love triangle. It’s also told with a nonlinear narrative. Chronologically speaking, the film opens at the 2007 U.S. Tennis Open where longtime friends and doubles partners Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) and Art Donaldson (Mike Faist) are contended for the Amateur Men’s Singles title. Their commitment and concentration is significantly hindered when they get a first look at women’s tennis phenom Tashi Duncan (Zendaya), who agrees to go on a date with both of them.

She decides to get romantic with Patrick and remain friends with Art, but things change when she suffers a career-ending knee injury. Tashi leaves Patrick and pours all her time and energy into coaching Art, whom she later marries. Many moons later, Patrick, now a penniless journeyman player clinging to what’s left of his floundering career, is set to face off against Art in the pre-U.S. Open Challengers’ finals in 2019. Art is eyeing a Grand Slam sweep that could be derailed between seeing an old-friend-turned-foe coupled with Tashi’s insidious motivations.

O’Connor, Faist, and Zendaya turn in a devilishly compelling trifecta of performances that function both as individual showcases and a strong collective. Zendaya deservedly gets top billing, sinking her teeth into a role of an untrustworthy temptress with cloudy intentions in contrast to her fiercely competitive nature on the court. O’Connor is often equally grimy, at one point trying to exchange a (worthless) signed racket for a hotel-room when his card is declined. Faist’s Art is the most pitiful of the three, despite his incredible accomplishments. He’s on the cusp of etching himself into tennis history, but doesn’t seem the least bit happy. He’s burnt out, and his face suggests he wants to retire, exhausted by serving as the vicarious vessel for his wife’s eroded dreams.

Challengers doesn’t hide the pulpy nature of its premise. In fact, it doubles down on it quite frequently, with a score (by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) that has no problem with intruding on a scene with louder-than-normal synths and pulsating beats that capitalize on passion, deceit, or whatever theme happens to be at the center. It can be distracting, but it’s also an undeniable mood-setter for a film that hooks you early.

The only thing that truly threatens to derail Challengers is its structure, an unnecessary jigsaw puzzle that haphazardly hopscotches from 2007 to 2019 and the years in between. More than just failing to develop the relationship between Tashi and Art to its potential, this results in the suspense of tennis matches and romantic encounters being interrupted by frequent cutting. At first, it appears as if Justin Kuritzkes’ script is taking the juggling both the beginning and near-end of the story in such a way to have the two timelines sync and form one during the third act. However, that’s not the case, as Challengers continues to jump around even late into picture. There would’ve been nothing wrong with telling this story in linear fashion.

While the performances manage to smooth most of these structural issues over, Guadagnino’s leering camera angles and various medium-length sequences do just as much. The cornerstone scene of the trailer — the three athletes in the midst of a make-out sesh in a grungy motel-room — is made terrific thanks to a level of suspense and sultry romance carried through its entirety. Another gem is a confrontation between Patrick and Art in a sauna on the eve of their big match. Then there are the tennis matches, including the climactic finale, where at one point, we, the viewer, take on the POV of the ball as its lobbied and struck over the net about a half-dozen times. Guadagnino employs a refreshing variety of directorial styles here that pays dividends.

Tennis isn’t an inherently sexy sport. Come to think of it, cannibalism isn’t particularly romantic either, but Bones and All, Guadagnino’s last feature, found almost implausible ways to make it appear so. Accepted a tennis-centric beach-read, enhanced by opulent production and three captivating performances, Challengers manages to dazzle, flaws and all.

NOTE: Challengers is now playing exclusively in theaters.

Starring: Zendaya, Josh O’Connor, Mike Faist, and Darnell Appling. Directed by: Luca Guadagnino.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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