Challengers Review

By: Andrew Warren  |  May 11, 2024

By Andrew Warren, Staff Writer

What if instead of beating each other up in basements, Brad Pitt and Edward Norton decided to play tennis? You would probably end up with a film that looks a lot like Challengers, the story of two men who go from friends to rivals over the course of their tennis careers when they start competing for the same woman. The plot may not sound like Fight Club, but the techno pulsing score, tight editing, fluid camera work, and angry shirtless men are all very reminiscent of Fight Club.

It’s the final match in a New Rochelle tennis tournament. The grand prize is a whopping $7200. On one side of the net is Art Donaldson, a celebrity champion who’s coming off a string of losses and needs an easy win to boost his confidence before the U.S. Open. On the other side is Patrick Zweig, a scruffy never-was, that slept in his car only a week before because he couldn’t afford a hotel. Watching from the middle of the stands is Tashi Duncan, Art’s wife and coach. This is the most important tennis match in all of their lives and there’s a lot more on the line than just $7200.

Rarely do I walk out of a movie and think the score was the best part, but Challengers is the exception. It was composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who frequently collaborate with David Fincher (Social Network, Dragon Tattoo, Mank). The score is fast, loud, techno, EDM club music. It’s truly responsible for the energy and momentum of the movie. Just when the story feels like it’s beginning to drag, the music kicks in with a loud DUH NUNNUH NUH, and the adrenaline starts flowing again.  

The cinematography and directing are just as exhilarating. Luca Guadagnino (the director) and Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (the cinematographer) shoot the tennis matches from every possible angle and point of view. From above and below, in super slow motion or flying rapidly across the court, not a single opportunity was wasted.

This is my favorite Zendaya performance outside of Euphoria. Tashi Duncan is a deeply flawed character. She’s ruthless, competitive, and mercilessly manipulative. Zendaya is not only able to play all those character traits, but also possess a powerful allure that very few actresses have. This is far beyond simple attraction. It is completely believable that she can weave a spell over two men and totally shatter their friendship. The only issue I took with her performance was that she isn’t super convincing as a 30-year old mother. It didn’t stand in the way of enjoying the movie, but perhaps she should stick to younger characters for the time being.

Mike Faist and Josh O’Connor play Art and Patrick, respectively. They both have better chemistry between themselves than either one of them do with Zendaya: and that was to the movie’s benefit. Their characterizations are very well done. Art and Patrick have different personalities, yet it’s still totally understandable that the two of them become so close. Art is someone who plays by the rules, always double checking before he’s allowed to do what he wants. Patrick possesses natural talent and isn’t afraid to go after what he desires, no matter what, not even bothering to ask questions later. Both men are able to play teens and adults convincingly.

The screenplay, by Justin Kuritzkes, is fairly complex. The audience is expected to follow three characters across a 15-year span, bouncing forwards and backwards in time. It is truly impressive that I was not once confused as to when or where a certain scene was taking place.  

Putting aside the film’s chronology for a moment, the script is still remarkable for its character work. The plot is driven purely by the shifting attraction and repulsion the protagonists have for each other. It’s pretty amazing how much mileage the movie is able to get out of this love triangle. There’s romance and betrayals, and tragedy, and more romance, and more betrayals, and tennis. And it never gets boring.

Conflict this rich demands a comprehensive ending and unfortunately the movie falls short in this regard. Challengers’s climax is intelligent but just doesn’t quite answer all that came before. It’s a testament to how clever the movie is that this ending doesn’t work. Tashi, Art, and Patrick have gone through quite a lot over the runtime and their problems can’t be solved in just one tennis match.