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Review: Challengers – “Incredibly smart, with twists that will make your jaw drop”

A psychological-thriller and romantic-comedy collide in Challengers. It should be a contradiction in genres, but the backdrop of tennis gives the film the necessary edge to keep you hooked. There’s no need to be a tennis fan as the real game is played off the court between an engaging cast led by the formidable Zendaya – if Dune didn’t convince you to take her seriously this surely will. Zendaya plays Tashi Duncan, a retired tennis player turned coach for her husband Art Donaldson (Mike Faist), determined to end his losing streak by entering him into a Challenger cup. The cup goes well until Art gets to the final where he faces his former best friend and Tashi’s ex-boyfriend Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor). It’s a delicious love triangle.

The three leads have great chemistry together, jumping from friend to lover to enemy over the course of the film. Diving into the flaws and drives of Patrick, Art and Tashi; by the time you get to the end you’ll feel like you know these characters inside and out. Tashi’s love for tennis trumps all and to her “tennis is a relationship” and possibly the only thing she really loves. While Patrick and Art are driven mainly by how much they adore and worship Tashi. Zendaya has joked in interviews the film should be called “Codependency: The Movie” and she’s absolutely right. It’s a toxic relationship in vivid detail. The camera constantly has close-ups of the leads so we can see every expression on their face as they puzzle each other out on their way to becoming champion tennis players.

Directed by Luca Guadagnino who had previously directed Call Me By Your Name and Suspiria, Guadagnino treats the chronology like a game of tennis. Flitting back and forth between events when the characters were 18 and to their early 30s and everywhere in between. The start can be disorientating, with no clear view on how any of these different time periods come together but it settles into a smooth pace soon enough. From the start, Guadagnino is keen to explore power and relationships. When the cast are in their teens, the camera follows Art and Patrick’s lead and embraces the male gaze before Tashi presents herself and takes control of the story and the boys. The boys themselves have an interesting power dynamic and explores the homoerotic tension between them in little nods and winks – whenever they eat together it is invariably phallus-shaped.

Anyone familiar with the anime Death Note might remember an episode where the two leads play a tennis match to size each other up before coming to the conclusion that it is just a tennis match. Unlike Death Note, Challengers doesn’t have voice-over to explain their thoughts, just incredible acting through expressions and body language. When we get to the tennis matches they are vivid and the close-ups reveal the “relationship” that Tashi believes is happening on the courts; accompanied by bombastic beats provided by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross.

Challengers was not the film I was expecting. A cross in genres, accompanied by thorough character exploration with a surprising number of laughs. Incredibly smart, with twists that will make your jaw drop, Challengers will have you glued to the screen.

Challengers opens in cinemas on 26th April 2024.

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