Challengers (2024)

There are moments in Luca Guadagnino’s Challengers where the Reznor / Ross score hurtles in without warning, pulsating, throbbing and thumping throughout the moment. At first it’s jarring, pounding in during moments of inaction, long lingering looks or heated arguments. But then you begin to cotton to what Guadagnino’s doing. It’s audible desire, eroticism through the speakers. It’s the blood pulsating in your ears during moments of restrained passion, when the tension is at such a peak all you can feel is your heart pounding against your chest, and you can barely hear what the other person is saying above your own voracious, carnal impulses. It perfectly encapsulates what Challengers is – a 13 year long sexually tense game of cat and mouse between three (very hot) individuals, with a bottomless appetite for one another. 

Oh, and they play tennis. 

We find ourselves in New Rochelle, New York. It’s the finals of a no-hoper tennis tournament sponsored by a local tire business. Superstar tennis player, Art Donaldson has found himself on the pointy end of a losing streak that threatens to shatter his confidence in the sport. At the behest of his wife and once phenom player, Tashi (Zendaya), Art drops in as a wild card to get his mojo back. Unbeknownst to him, he faces off against once best friend (and down on his luck) Patrick Zweig. The three share history. Deep history. And as Guadagnino winds the clock back to explore it, we soon find ourselves in the midst of a heated, sweaty and writhing love (and lust) triangle.

Gudagnino continues to prove himself as an incredibly versatile and dynamic director. Jumping from coming of age drama, to grotesque gothic horror and cannibal love story, Challengers is the director at his most naughty and playful to date. He’s having fun behind the camera, and he wants you to know just how much fun he’s having. He’s beyond your sardonic eye rolls, the tisk tisksat his visual euphemisms. He knows exactly what he’s doing and couldn’t give less of a shit what you think. Balls are snatched two at a time, phallic churros bitten down upon and nary a banana makes it out the film safely. Sayombhu Mukdepprom’s camera lingers and leers over the sleek, lean and wiry bodies of our champions, sometimes too long, other times not long enough. Reznor and Ross’ score ripples through your ears, transporting you back to the deepest and darkest corners of any dingy nightclub, as we watch the three play a game of tug of war, as the power dynamic shift and swirls all around. 

Writer Justin Kuritzkes discerns correctly that the sex is the least important part of the story and it’s the tension that’s the juice. Zendaya’s Tashi, once a tennis phenomenon before a horrific knee injury shutters her career prospects, is forced to watch and coach someone else living her dream. Her resentment is palpable, more-so considering Art has lost heart for the sport. Patrick could be considered the foil, the one messy individual who swoops in at the last second to completely undo well made plans. But he’s merely the other side of the coin in this equation, the yin to Art’s yang. It’s Tashi who’s the lubricating factor between the three, and she does indeed take such good care of her “little white boys”. Neither devil nor angel, she’s a vessel for both Art and Patrick’s pent up aggression and tension they have for one another, a super conductor of their passion and she thrives off the magnetism (and drama) both players have for the other.

Challengers is deliciously naughty, achingly playful, and a masterful example at clothes-on eroticism. In any other hands, this would have been incredibly cliche and trite, but Kuritzkes’ scintillating script, the trio’s powerhouse performances and nuclear-level chemistry and Guadagnino’s expert direction and welcomed idiosyncrasies, Challengers is an ace, a grand slam  of salaciousness and the object of white-knuckled pearl clutching.  

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