/‘Challengers’ serves tension on and off the court 

‘Challengers’ serves tension on and off the court 

By Carter James 

Where do I start? How do I even explain? 

Sweat falls into the lens of the camera. A single look changes an entire scene. Tennis is the only thing that matters.  “Challengers” has tension so thick you’re dead before the second act.  

Adult is the first word I think about this film. It’s no secret that adult films like erotic thrillers and mid-budget dramas are all but gone these days. There’s been a resurgence of these films, like “Fair Play” and “The Voyeurs,” but they’re all but another drop in the bucket of endless streaming fodder. “Challengers” proves why adult-oriented films are meant for the big screen.  

I don’t know much about tennis. I know next to nothing about love triangles. But in “Challengers,” I fully understood the complexity of both. This is not a usual love story. This is not a typical sports flick. This is the fight of the characters’ lives. Tennis is the only thing this triad understands. Love is expressed through a serve. Sex is a tool, not a means of expressing love. The context in which they live is through winning and losing.  

The film is about former doubles partners and best friends, Art Donaldson and Patrick Zwieg, competing in the final round of a challenger for the US Open. They’re at two completely different stages of their careers and lives, but this is the most important match they’ll ever play on and off the court. Tashi Donaldson, Art’s wife and Patrick’s ex-girlfriend, is the catalyst for the decades-long strife.  

What makes this psychosexual tennis saga special is how tennis and erotica drive the film narratively and rhythmically. Their challenger match takes place throughout the entire film, capturing it moment to moment, serve to serve, hit to hit. In between their sets, are key moments that defined the three as tennis players and lovers. Sexual tension is constantly building. While scenes of lust and sensuality naturally build to that point, the tennis matches themselves are sex scenes. The film moves like the erotic thrillers of old, but takes on the concept of a sports film in an entirely new way. Everything is erotic, everything is tense. This is the down bad movie of the century. 

There is no such thing as normalcy to this love triangle. Art and Patrick want Tashi to a point of pure depravity. Tashi doesn’t even see love. She only sees the game. To her, tennis is a relationship, and she only wants the best competitor. When I said sex is a tool, it’s her tool; her leash on Art and Patrick. How does she keep the situation in her favor? She lets the men eat the forbidden fruit.  

Art, while he has pure love for the game, sees Tashi as the ultimate win. He’s a lover, not a fighter, even if that means he loses himself in the process. Patrick sees Tashi as the symbol of beauty itself. He was the one who first had his eyes set on her. His lustful ways almost seem predatory, except his prey, is the apex predator. The reason he never makes it to the same highs Art achieves in tennis, is because he can’t separate his love for others from the love of the game. 

The sheer complexity of “Challengers” is because of how well written Justin Kuritzkes’s screenplay is and how the actors brilliantly bring out those complexities. Kuritzkes drives home this concept of erotica by making every line have an undertone. Whether the characters know it or not, their words continue to reverberate their animalistic nature. What’s more insane is how this is his first screenplay, and that he’s married to “Past Lives” writer and director, Celine Song (which is also about a love triangle).  

In a film that’s laden with raw passion and fiery intensity, the cast is fully enveloped in these sultry personalities.  

Zendaya. Zendaya is Tashi. Damn. She’s not even 30 and continues to take her acting to new heights. You’ve never seen anything like this from her before. This is her official reinvention as an actor. She becomes this beacon to the male gaze as a means of master manipulation. I genuinely believe Tashi only loves tennis. I would say this is the performance of her career, but I already know she’s going to prove me wrong with her next performance.  

Mike Faist, who plays Art, shows off incredible range. Knowing only his musical centric performances, you couldn’t tell me a theatre kid delivered his performance. He brings an astute intensity that his contemporaries can only dream of reaching. Art is a softer, more loving man, but his competitive spirit strips all of that away. When Faist channels that intensity, he immediately locks it in.  

Josh O’Connor as Patrick is the MPV of the film. He’s this manic bisexual that is driven by one thing and one thing only: lust. He’s somewhat villainous in this role, being this literal and figurative presence to Art and Tashi, where the balance of everyone’s lives can be shifted by the tiniest of his decisions. You can see in his eyes how badly he wants it all.  

None of these strokes of genius would be possible without director Luca Guadagnino enhancing everything that is felt and heard. He makes tennis feel like the most exciting sport in the world by making it the most intimate. A serve is not just a serve. A serve is a statement. A close-up doesn’t represent what a character is feeling. A close-up represents everything a character has ever felt. Even the slightest of camera movements shifted the film, and me, in an entirely different direction. I was on the edge of my seat, and I still found a new edge every time. In an era of sexless cinema, Guadagnino has directed the horniest movie of our time.  

Of course, the tennis romantic-drama is one of the most technically impressive films of the year. Cinematographer, Sayombhu Mukdeeprom shot on film, and you can immediately tell how this was the only format “Challengers” was meant for. The sheer detail combined with the inherent softness of film, made for scenes that felt dreamlike, especially when we flash back to the adolescence of this trio. What’s more insane is that I experienced all of this horny madness on an IMAX screen. 

You know how I said I could feel the images earlier? I could feel every sound choice as well. When the tennis ball hits the racket, you take on the full gale force wind of those hits. Just when I thought a single look made me tense, a single sound raised the tension even more. There’s a scene where Nelly’s “Hot in Here” rings throughout a party and I swore the auditorium’s AC was starting to break. Composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are madmen. The duo does no favor for the easily anxious because their techno inspired score fully envelops you into madness. This film takes place from 2006-2019, and the score feels like a product of its time.  

“Challengers” is a pure tour de force in storytelling and atmosphere. It’s almost inexplicable how this film made me feel. There was always something to feel, and just about every scene I felt something new. You have career bests for truly talented young performers, an insane debut screenplay and a director who’s reached auteur status. If you haven’t been paying attention to the films of Luca Guadagnino, after you see this film, you will. As The Alabamian’s own M.K. Bryant put it right as the credits started to roll, “This is the most bisexual film of all time.” 


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