"I take orders from the Octoboss."


The trailer for Luca Guadagnino’s CHALLENGERS looked kinda like a 2020s version of a WILD THINGS or CRUEL INTENTIONS type movie, and not just because it hyped up a naughty threesome scene. It looked like a similar type of straight faced but knowing erotic thriller soap opera about rich women who delight in using their sexual power to manipulate men. And it kind of is that, but also it’s way more of a sports movie than I expected. It just sees the world of tennis being a little like those movies.

It’s sort of a love triangle, more of a tennis triangle. It’s the non-linear story of the events leading up to the 2019 Phil’s Tire Town Challenger in New Rochelle, New York, in which legendary-great-trying-to-get-his-groove-back Art Donaldson (Mike Faist, PINBALL: THE MAN WHO SAVED THE GAME) faces debit-card-declined-at-the-hotel-so-he-slept-in-his-car nobody Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor, FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS).

But no, it’s not a Rocky vs. Creed underdog story. ‘Cause then we learn how these two grew up and went to a tennis boarding school together, fell for and fought over college phenom Tashi “The Duncanator” Duncan (Zendaya, SUPER BUDDIES), who offered her phone number as the prize for a match (to inspire good tennis). Patrick won but failed to keep her during a long distance relationship where Tashi and Art became close friends going to Yale together. Now Art and Tashi have been married for years, have a kid, they’re a celebrity power couple but her career never happened due to injury, so she coaches Art and runs his foundation. We learn through jumping around in time all the complicated feelings and past grudges between these three, how they feed into the match, and what the match means for their friendship turned rivalry, their careers, the marriage, the future.

Guadagnino treats these jerks without judgment, but makes no bones about tennis being a sport for the privileged (as also noted in KING RICHARD, one of the few other tennis movies I’ve seen). The boys went to that fancy lad school, but still laugh at Tashi’s family living in a coastal mansion that’s almost like a castle. And when grown up Patrick is bumming around Tashi cuts him down by basically calling him a poser or tourist, living that life with the knowledge he could ask his apparently super-rich family for money if he really needed it.

In some ways it seems like an experiment in seeming sexy even though everybody’s wearing gym clothes most of the time. It’s pretty horny and boundary pushing for being a mainstream movie where a lady gets two straight-identifying male friends to kiss each other but not get mad and then never acknowledge it again except through suggestive churro or banana eating, standing almost nose to nose while shit talking during tennis, threatening each other in a small sauna, etc. It’s all suggestion, never explicit, more PG-13 CRUEL INTENTIONS than boob-and-dick-hanging WILD THINGS. While presumably suppressing whatever they have for each other, the boys desire Tashi, but for her sexuality mainly seems to be a coaching tool. Each time she gives in to lust I think it’s less about her sexual fulfillment than about the effect she thinks it will have on the next match. Philosophizing and psychoanalyzing about tennis are the only things that turn her on, from what I can tell.

From the trailer I had an idea of the story but not of the interesting way it’s told. They’ll give us an idea what’s going for a while and then say “okay, here’s something that happened a while ago that you may find relevant.” And sometimes that will slightly recontextualize some of what we’ve already seen, but it never feels like a twist or a gotcha. The chronology nonchalantly pings around like that for a while until we’re ready to entirely focus on this it-turns-out-incredibly-loaded small time rematch. And by then the momentum can’t be stopped, and it builds to an ending that’s up to interpretation but managed to feel like an exclamation point even in the moments before I decided what to make of it and upgraded it to a triple exclamation point.

Guadagnino’s playful filmmaking makes this sport which I have never in my life given even one shit about, let alone two, seem ridiculously cinematic. For a bit he’ll focus on their feet sliding across the court, or the heads of the spectators – or just Tashi – moving back and forth to watch the action. Or it will switch to a first-person-tennis-player perspective. In one thrilling scene it switches to the POV of the ball for a bit. There are many racquets that get destroyed in anger, sometimes in super slow motion, sometimes on repeat. Similar attention is paid to individual drops of sweat falling from Art and Patrick’s faces and hair as they play. It actually seems as anime-like as CREED III, though I’ll be surprised if Guadagnino is out there citing Dragonball like Michael B. Jordan was.

There’s a whole lot of emphasis on the increasingly sexual sounding grunts of the players. When the ball is hit (especially by Tashi) the thunderous hollow rubber sound makes it seem like no one has ever smacked one of those things that hard in history. And I’m guessing some of it is simulated but its trajectory gets so close to the camera it seems like it’s gonna turn some poor operator into that cameraman Cenobite from HELLRAISER III: HELL ON EARTH.

I didn’t see it in Imax, but this poster is kinda cool

For these aspects of the film’s greatness I must credit the collaboration of cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (who started with Apichatpong Weerasethakul and also shot CALL ME BY YOUR NAME and SUSPIRIA for Guadagnino), editor Marco Costa (BONES AND ALL) and tennis trainer/consultant Brad Gilbert. But all of their work is launched into orbit by the premium rocket fuel that is the score by Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross (MANK). Those boys have been on a tear lately, because TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES: MUTANT MAYHEM is honestly one of their best, and so is this. I bet tennis courts around the world are experiencing a deluge of newbies trying out the sport before realizing they can’t feel like a god without blasting the beats in the background.

Reznor told GQ that two of Guadagnino’s directions were “What if it was very loud techno music through the whole film?” and “Unending homoerotic desire.” The result is a classic soundtrack, and there’s also a good remix version. Hurry up and put that shit out on vinyl, you monsters! My only complaint is that the end credits song “Compress/Repress,” which has vocals like a Nine Inch Nails song, hints at the themes of the movie but doesn’t literally explain the plot, drop the characters’ names, sample dialogue “Batdance” style or have a bunch of tennis puns and references (“Break the rules of this game” doesn’t really count). But it’s not too late to make a video where he’s somewhere singing the song while clips from the movie show on an old TV or projected on a sheet.

This is a three-hander. There are of course many other people in the movie – referees, announcers, assistants, hotel staff, other players, etc., but the focus is entirely on these three and the machinations between them. All three actors are giving, you know, championship level performances. I don’t know O’Connor from anything, but I remember Faist stealing WEST SIDE STORY. He’s a Broadway star with an energy and look that are very different from standard Hollywood it boy, but fit right into that period piece. Putting that same guy into such a of-the-time movie (in a polo shirt instead of leather jacket) is interesting in a different way. I think we’ll be seeing more of both of these guys.

Of course Zendaya is the superstar in the movie, the one whose face takes up two thirds of the poster, who commands scenes while just sitting in a crowd observing. I only know her from the SPIDER-MAN and DUNE movies, so maybe this would be old news if I’d seen Euphoria, but this seems to me like a smart use of her particular type of charisma. She seems pretty innocent and cool but occasionally she’ll have a little moment of wickedness like when she lures the boys with the promise of a threesome and then leans back to enjoy not actually participating, or when she snaps “I’m taking such good care of my little white boys.” But the peaks at her sociopathic master manipulator side don’t make the other parts seem like a front. She just has dimensions. Or maybe I’m an easy mark.

CHALLENGERS was a spec script by rookie screenwriter Justin Kuritzkes, husband of PAST LIVES director Celine Song. Talented family. Next he’ll be reuniting with Guadagnino to adapt William S. Burroughs’ Queer, which I will definitely see but feel awkward saying the title out loud to buy the ticket. “Two for, uh… the one with Daniel Craig.” After this and BONES AND ALL in a row I am a Guadagnino fan and will have to catch up with some of his earlier ones (and rewatch his SUSPIRIA).

I love when this happens – a respected international arthouse darling type of director doing a pop movie without abandoning his sensibilities. I think you’d have to really stretch to call it “pretentious” or accuse Guadagnino of trying to be “elevated,” but it also doesn’t seem like he’s compromising at all or condescending to the material. This is decidedly not Oscar bait, but it’s just begging for some MTV Movie Awards! I salute future Best Villain nominee Tashi, and I hope there are a series of DTV sequels where lesser known actors play varations on her and later get well known for something respectable and I get to continue referencing it in their reviews. (The Amy-Adams-in-CRUEL-INTENTIONS-2 precedent.)


This entry was posted on Thursday, May 23rd, 2024 at 12:46 pm and is filed under Reviews, Sport. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

4 Responses to “Challengers”

  1. aww man the anime comparisions make me wanna see this to compare it to like Prince of Tennis or some shit.

  2. Fuckin’ LOOOOVED this movie.

    There’s a common critique that if you end up primarily mentioning the music in a movie, then the movie isn’t any good. But I don’t subscribe to this notion. And this movie was not only great, but it was constantly, excellently prodded by that propulsive score (which, for all intents and purposes, is more of a Nine Inch Nails score than the previous Reznor/Ross movie work).

    Faist is a guy I like, and he is good here. But O’Connor — what a sniveling sex beast. He reminded me of every sexual predator in every fancy costume drama, where there’s only the suggestion of lewdness. But here, he’s scum! They’re all kinda scummy, but O’Connor is the only one who tries to intimidate by walking around nude.
    (Faist, for the record, is kind of hilarious in the aforementioned “Pinball” movie, especially considering he has to play much older than he is, and he has to do it under a massive, ungainly mustache).

    I think this is one of those post-modern sports movies that looks at how ambition can actually corrupt (very much in line with that amazing Last Dance ESPN doc from a couple years back that revealed how petty Michael Jordan was during his NBA reign). Tashi sees these two buddies who are maybe closer than most friends, and she sees EXACTLY how it can come across as a game. To her, everything is a competition. It’s sociopathic! I think this is sort of hammered home in the final moments, but far more ambiguously than you’d think.

    On another level, without going into it too much, this is a movie for people who have cheated. It’s about that period AFTER the moment when you’ve finally decided to cheat, and you’ve committed to being the villain. How far beyond that are you willing to go to manipulate the ones you love? It’s diabolical, but lust does that to you sometimes.

  3. I’ve not seen this, and I don’t want to be mean about someone’s physique, but if in casting Zendaya the aim was to have an actor who could plausibly snap a leg playing tennis, then good job casting director.

    I stopped watching Guadagnino’s movies around the time of his SUSPIRIA remake. Part of me feels that was a mistake; some of the early movies with Tilda Swinton are great. Ralph Fiennes is outstandingly irritating in A BIGGER SPLASH, and the brilliant use of John Adams’s music in I AM LOVE would seem to fit with what Vern is saying here about the music. But, and again I really don’t want to be mean, he now seems intent on casting young actors whose main purpose is to flag that this movie isn’t intended for me. I should try to be bigger than that, I know.

    Of contemporary Italian film directors, Paolo Sorrentino is more my speed. His English language movies have fallen a bit flat, but he picked up an Oscar for LA GRANDE BELLEZZA, and essentially anything starring Toni Servillo is worth a look. IL DIVO and LE CONSEGUENZE DELL’AMORE are outstanding. Great to hear Lali Puna and Boards of Canada in a movie too.

  4. Franchise Fred

    May 27th, 2024 at 6:49 am

    I had a hard time with the time jumps. By the time they’re flashing back to a few days earlier in the week before the match I wondered if it would be any less effective told chronologically, or if they might even reveal there’s less actually going on in the plot.

    Oh well, it’s working for people.

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