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We Build Alaska

Derivative columnist in movie theater: A Review of Luca Guadagnino’s “Challengers”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah
I am a menace, keep me a rack just like tennis
I’m with the shit like I’m Dennis
I started this shit, I’ma finish.”

NLE Choppa, “Shotta Flow”

Warning: This review contains spoilers for the film “Challengers.”  

Tennis is life is sex is death is tennis. It all comes back around in the end. This is the central thesis of Luca Guadagnino’s “Challengers,” a freakishly sensual male-on-male movie about being a little too close with your buddies. It’s a sweaty, homoerotic, strange beast of a film, scored by the club-techno throb of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s driving soundtrack that would be equally at home in that weird leather rave from the beginning of “The Matrix.”

It’s ostensibly about tennis, but it’s really about pure aesthetics, the lines and curves and angles of a ball from one end of a court to the other, and the mathematical spirals of three separate relationships as they intersect, interact, and inevitably spiral into explosive climax. At points, “Challengers” borders on (but never teeters into) Verhoeven-esque “Showgirls” style parody, ushered along by a strangely stilted script that feels like it was written by a Cronenbergian nightmare monster meld of David Mamet and Aaron Sorkin on uppers.

It is, simply put, bonkers.

“Challengers” follows tennis-boarding school youths Art (Mike Faist) and Patrick (Josh O’Connor) in a non-linear narrative from the Junior US Open in 2006 to a Challenger match in 2019. Hot off a doubles win at the Junior Open, the two meet Tashi Duncan (played by it-girl Zendaya), a tennis prodigy with sponsorships from Adidas lined up. The two (who’ve bunked together since they were pre-teens) fall instantly in love (lust?) with Tashi – and their friendly competition for her phone number ends up becoming the central plot of the film. Without revealing too much, Patrick’s early win and eventual courtship of Tashi as she plays tennis at Stanford doesn’t seal the deal, and when their relationship crumbles, Art is there to step in.

The timeline of the film jumps around, from 2006 to Art’s pro career in 2019, to Tashi’s leg injury in between. It’s a little hard to follow at points, especially towards the end, when Art’s tennis game, Tashi’s scheming, and Patrick’s homeless tennis antics coincide – but it’s worth it, especially at the film’s explosive climax.

Reznor and Ross’s score contributes to the film’s frenetic, frantic feel – it’s heavy on the synths, and sounds like something that’d play at some sweaty US Open after-party. As a fan of their more muted, downtempo score for David Fincher’s “The Social Network,” which was itself based on a previous Nine Inch Nails project, this was a fun change of pace, and worked extremely well with the relentless back-and-forth of tennis volleys and emotional manipulation.

“Challengers” is a masterclass in manipulation masquerading as a sports movie. Zendaya plays Tashi close to the vest, relentlessly in control of the court – and even when she isn’t able to play tennis anymore, she still runs circles around Art and Patrick, for no other reason than to prove that she can. But even she, it turns out, can be outsmarted and outplayed – and when she is, towards the end of the movie, it’s explosively cathartic. It reminded me of some of the better episodes of “Succession,” or a gayer “Whiplash.”

Faist plays Art as sort of a loping, lanky puppy dog, a friendly sidekick to O’Connor’s lean, sneering Patrick. The two play off each other well, and when Tashi sets them in motion, the two personalities clash and contrast, each knocking chunks off the other like chunks of glass in a rock tumbler. It brings to mind segments of Donna Tartt’s “The Secret History,” or John Knowles’s “A Separate Peace” – and of course, Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin’s relationship (however fictionalized) in Fincher’s “The Social Network.”

Guadagnino clearly has an eye for a certain kind of athletic beauty, and the raging undercurrent of sensuality that runs throughout “Challengers” is palpable. Even the (I’m not making this up) dubbed-over gasps and grunts from the tennis court are sounds that have never been made in sports before by a human voice. The tennis-as-sex metaphor runs deep, and I promise you I’m not the only one that noticed it. (I made myself laugh the whole way home imagining Guadagnino in the voice-over booth, perspiring and fanning himself with a magazine, asking for yet another grunt and groan take from O’Connor and Faist. “Perhaps… oh, perhaps just one more. Anuzzer take! Sacre bleu!”)

The cinematography of “Challengers” is worthy of its own article – but Guadagnino manages to make tennis matches way more interesting than they ought to be. The camera switches between opponents, and at one point, takes on the POV of the tennis ball, being smacked from one side of the court to the other, like some sort of auteur’s Disneyworld ride. Space Mountain for cinema bluehairs, or something like that. Tennis balls shoot out of the screen, and every backhand and serve feels intensely physical. If Luca was a little bit more of a hack (or perhaps, less afraid to be accused of being a hack by columnists for Anchorage-based political blogs) he would have released a 3D cut where the audience would have to dodge balls and duck out of the way of thrown rackets. At any rate, the action is in-your-face, and a lot of fun to watch.

In David Foster Wallace’s seminal essay about tennis, “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” he describes the sport as “chess on the run.” And so it is – “Challengers” hammers this point home. Everything is tennis to Art, Patrick, and Tashi. It permeates every facet of their lives, and as a result, they cannot exist outside of the confines of the game. They speak in metaphors, and relate every aspect of their being to the court – not out of love, but out of fear. Without tennis, no one in “Challengers” is anything. Tashi admits this fact later in the movie, after her knee injury – “My only skill in life is hitting a ball with a racquet.” The threesome in Challengers chases tennis because it’s all there is.

It’s a sports movie. It’s a movie about relationships. It’s something indefinable – but it has made waves. And the score, let me repeat, is very good. “Challengers: It’ll Make You Care About Tennis for Two Hours.”

Jacob Hersh is studying law at the University of Idaho. He occasionally does movie reviews and writes weird columns for the Landmine to get extra money for beer. 

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Akwhitty
1 month ago

So she likes fuzzy ball that bounce.