Challengers Review

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Rating: 3/5

Synopsis:

Zendaya is having a successful year. After “Dune: Part Two’s” success, she comes to “Challengers” with a very different story. She stars as Tashi, a former up-and-coming tennis star whose career was cut short. She now coaches her husband Art, who is struggling to maintain the success he once achieved. In order to get back on top, he must beat his former friend Patrick. Tashi has a history with Patrick though, which complicates the dynamic between the three. Will Tashi be able to inspire Mike to beat Patrick? Or will secrets leak about Tashi’s past with them both?

Positives:

I believe “Challengers” will be wildly successful with the right audience. Those who were intrigued by the trailer will likely love the film. The story is told in a very interesting way. It begins in the present day, where Art and Patrick are squaring up for their long awaited tennis match. But it’s composed of flashbacks and insights from the interactions our leads have shared over the years. Patrick and Art were longtime friends for most of the film. But after they met Tashi everything changed. We see the collapse of their friendship and the competitive nature in all of them rise to the surface. What follows are a series of unexpected and tumultuous events that are undeniably interesting. I enjoyed seeing how the relationship between the three of them evolved. Director Luca Guadagnino spends a lot of time developing these characters and revealing what motivates them. Each has a different angle in the dynamic, plotting and planning their next move. While there is some drama within the tennis at hand, most of it revolves around Tashi. Not only do both friends want a shot with Tashi, but her motivations as a competitor are on display as well. The strange and often toxic dynamic between the three of them is intense and intriguing. By the time the final match comes into its climax, the stakes are extremely high. The constant build to a worthy conclusion is executed very well.

The film is made with exceptional style. Much like “Bones and All”, Guadagnino creates a setting where a small group of characters are at the forefront. These characters are given rich backstories that begin to peel back the layers of their persona. Every sequence of tennis is filmed with different court angles and action shots. It’s almost as if we are meant to be inside of the action while getting a glimpse into the psychology of the characters. From the sweat drenching them on the court to the tense arguments circling between them, the story has a way of making the small moments feel large. Each scene is highlighted with a score that fits the pizzazz encompassing these characters. None of them have small personalities so keeping a good selection of music in the background really helps them shine. I was very surprised where the story went in many cases. What I expected to be a straightforward love triangle story turned out to be far more intense, solidifying how toxic each of these characters could be. But this wouldn’t be possible without the excellent performances of the three leads. Each brings a unique perspective to the dynamic as they all value something different. I was very impressed with the range the actors showed throughout the film as certain scenes required them to be especially intense. In general, the film carries a unique style, good performances, and an unpredictable story. 

Negatives:

“Challengers” had the opportunity to be great. In many ways it is, but there are a few directorial choices that really brought the film down. The story is filled with flashbacks, giving the audiences a cue as to when the events happened. But after a while some of the events seem to blend together. I had a general idea of when everything was taking place but towards the end of the movie the story jumped around a lot. There were also some pacing issues in the beginning of the film and the concluding part of the big match. A good fifteen to twenty minutes could have been shaved off to make everything feel more fluid. I especially felt the final act of the story was dragged out way too long. Sure, some of the reveals were surprising…but the long shots of slow motion and mind games between the players wore thin after a while. I can’t forget the headache inducing sequences where the camera acts as the tennis ball being rallied on each side of the court. We couldn’t see what was going on during these back and forth points. This is an instance where viewing the players from above or the side may have been better. The stylish luster lost some of its edge at this point. 

The story also goes in some directions that will be divisive. While the film is marketed as a steamy tension filled love triangle, it doesn’t showcase how despicable these characters are. I personally found it hard to relate to any of them as they were all stuck up, entitled jerks with few redeeming qualities outside of their tennis skills. I felt exhausted after watching them for over two hours. Maybe this was the point, to showcase the toxic dynamic established between the three. I don’t think some of the graphic sexual choices in the film enhanced it much. In fact, I think Luca Guadagnino intentionally made this controversial. Some may enjoy this aspect more than I did. But for me it didn’t enhance the story at all. This is especially true when Tashi forces the two boys to…shall we say…get intimate. It felt forced just to be edgy. Most regular moviegoers may not connect to the film as much as the target audience. The film (like many of Guadagnino’s films) is very niche. 

Conclusion:

My experience with “Challengers” felt like a roller coaster. I zoomed around up and down throughout the runtime as I gathered my thoughts. The film is made with undeniable skill and a plethora of stylistic choices. Each of the three leads give outstanding performances that anchor the intensity of the film. But some odd directorial choices and pacing issues will likely discourage certain moviegoers. I think the film will do very well with those who were excited for it but likely won’t win much support outside that circle. My attention never waivered though so credit to Guadagnino for building a high stakes story. See “Challengers” if it seems interesting but others may not click with it as well.