The Movie Waffler New Release Review - CHALLENGERS | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review - CHALLENGERS

Challengers review
Three estranged friends and lovers are reunited during a tennis tournament.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Luca Guadagnino

Starring: Zendaya, Josh O'Connor, Mike Faist, Hailey Gates

Challengers poster

Game Set Match meets Jules Set Jim in Luca Guadagnino's Challengers, a tennis drama that puts the love in love triangle. It's invested in the action on the court and the drama off it in a way we haven't seen since the hey day of Ron Shelton, but the sports movie it most closely resembles is Oliver Stone's barmy American Football drama Any Given Sunday. Guadagnino out-Stones Stone, shooting the sport of tennis in a dazzling variety of ways. It's at times intoxicating but often comes across as pretentious, as though the filmmaker neither appreciates nor understands the sport and simply wants to try every technique at his disposal. But it's always entertaining.

It's no surprise when Guadagnino homages the famous shot from Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train in which Robert Walker stares straight ahead while surrounded by tennis spectators whose heads pan left and right as they follow the on court action. Here it's Zendaya's Tashi Duncan who occupies the Walker position. Everyone else in her crowd is riveted by a match between Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), a superstar in danger of becoming a has been, and Patrick Zweig (Josh O'Connor), a lowly player who never was.

Challengers review

Unlike the rest of the crowd, Tashi is less than enamoured by these two athletes. Art is her husband but the spark has gone from their marriage, largely because Tashi can't help but view him as a loser now that his career is on a downward spiral (speaking of downward spirals, the film features an absolutely banging score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross). Patrick was once her lover and Art's best friend, and through flashbacks we see how the trio met as teenagers, competing in both tennis and tonsil hockey, and the troubles that befell them in the following years, including Tashi's own career coming to an end due to a knee injury. 13 years after their initial encounter the three are awkwardly reunited when Art follows Tashi's advice to drop down a level and play a minor tournament in which Patrick is also competing.

For all the flashy visuals - which ironically come courtesy of Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, a cinematographer best known for his collaborations with "slow cinema" icon Apitchatpong Weerasethakul – this is a movie that's all about performance, both of the athletes at the centre of its story and of the three young stars embodying them. The film is at its most compelling when Guadagnino sets his spinning camera to rest and focusses on some intimate moment between the key players. Like many graduates of the Disney school of child acting, Zendaya has an ability to do a lot with very little, and here she plays her cards close to her chest, keeping us guessing about Tashi's motivations throughout. We're never quite sure how Tashi really feels about Art or Patrick, and we can't trust anything she says. The character probably truthfully doesn't know herself.

Challengers review

Guadagnino casts Faist and O'Connor against type and reaps considerable rewards. Broadway musical star Faist is given the role of the quiet, withdrawn Art while O'Connor, known for playing sensitive young men in British dramas, is the brash, confident Patrick. Like Zendaya's Tashi, we're unsure if either of these men is presenting their true self in any given moment. Patrick is a self-confessed, unapologetic asshole while Art presents himself as a "nice guy," but the truth is probably somewhere in between.

Tashi's injury leads her initially to become Art's coach and subsequently his lover and wife. While the movie never explicitly highlights its racial dynamic, it's impossible to overlook how a woman of colour has had to settle for living in the shadow of two white men, one of whom seems intent on throwing away his privilege while the other has never lived up to it. I imagine women of all races will find Art and Patrick infuriating while sympathising with Tashi's predicament.

Challengers review

What Guadagnino doesn't seem to understand about sports movies is that you need someone to root for in the climactic duel. While Tashi, Art and Patrick are all thoroughly compelling characters, none of them are remotely likeable. This makes the final act, which leans into the traditional sports movie trope of the big showdown, somewhat redundant. There's an ambiguous ending that bears more than a passing similarity to the final scene of Damien Chazelle's Whiplash, and we're supposed to leave the cinema debating what it all means. But it's the only part of this equally exhilarating and exasperating film that feels underwhelming, like a match called off because of rain that we'll never get to see resolved.

Challengers is in UK/ROI cinemas from April 26th.

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