Film reviews: Challengers | That They May Face the Rising Sun | Boy Kills World

Luca Guadagnio’s tennis drama Challengers boasts winning performances from its three main players, writes Alistair Harkness

Challengers (15) *****

That They May Face the Rising Sun (15) ****

Boy Kills World (18) **

Mike Faist, Zendaya and Josh O'Connor in Challengers PIC: Metro Goldwyn Mayer PicturesMike Faist, Zendaya and Josh O'Connor in Challengers PIC: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures
Mike Faist, Zendaya and Josh O'Connor in Challengers PIC: Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures

Luca Guadagnino serves up an ace with Challengers, a sexy, funny, emotionally wrought tennis drama set during a single match, but encapsulating 13 years of friendship, rivalry and sexual misadventures. The players are Art Donaldson (West Side Story’s Mike Faist) and Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor) – the former a confidence-rattled top seed in need of a few easy wins en route the US Open, the latter a raffish also-ran scraping together a living on the less prestigious challengers circuit. That they have history is clear from the way they stalk each other on opposite sides of the court and keep eyeing up the same beautiful woman watching closely from the crowd.

Played by Zendaya, this is Tashi, Art’s wife and coach and Patrick’s... well, we’ll get to that soon enough via flashbacks to their days as rising stars on the junior tennis circuit. Rallying back and forth in the timeline of their lives, when the film first introduces us to the characters’ younger selves, Art and Patrick are former tennis academy roommates and newly crowned Junior US Open doubles champions. Tashi, meanwhile, is a sort of Venus Williams-style prodigy, famous before she’s even played a professional match. When both Art and Patrick openly hit on her at party to celebrate her own Junior US Open singles win, Tashi teases them about not wanting to be a home-wrecker. But as their mutual flirtation heats up the same night, that innuendo-loaded joke will prove prophetic. Indeed, coming from the same director who had Zendaya’s Dune co-star Timothée Chalamet defile a peach in Call Me By Your Name, the film isn’t coy about exploring the simmering sexual tension between all three leads as the ensuing love triangle that develops shapes their lives and careers in extreme ways over the next decade and change.

Hide Ad

Working from a script by Justin Kuritzkes (possibly working through his own feelings about his wife Celine Song’s recent semi-autobiographical love-triangle drama Past Lives), Guadagnino demonstrates plenty of directorial dexterity too. As the story traverse months and years with the speed of a cross-court forehand, we see how his characters’ youthful exuberance prematurely gives way to the messy complications of an adulthood, rapidly accelerated by the external pressures of being competitive athletes in a sport worth millions.

The tennis itself is thrillingly rendered, with Guadagnino strapping cameras to tennis balls and racquets to make us participants in the action with freaky point-of-view shots. He also blasts us with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ euphoric score to heighten the emotional intensity of a sport the characters have spent two thirds of their lives being drilled into mastering.

Bill Skarsgard in Boy Kills World PIC: Signature EntertainmentBill Skarsgard in Boy Kills World PIC: Signature Entertainment
Bill Skarsgard in Boy Kills World PIC: Signature Entertainment

Mercifully, all three actors bring their A-game too, with the likeable Faist great at capturing the diminishing passion of a champion near the end of his career and O’Connor’s wolfish turn as the disheveled Patrick complimenting the wastrel sex appeal of his forthcoming performance in Alice Rorwacher’s La Chimera. As for Zendaya, her character’s inscrutability as she pushes Art and keeps Patrick dangling is the real driving force of the film. What’s driving her, though, is a question the film’s ambiguous ending refuses to definitively answer. And yet Zendaya offers plenty of hints, clueing us into all the ways Tashi’s tactical brilliance on the court spills over into her personal life. Like the final shot in the film, she smashes it.

Adapted from the final novel of the late Booker-nominated Irish writer John McGahern, That They May Face the Rising Sun explores the hold the landscape has on a rural Irish community by looking at it through the eyes of a formerly local writer who’s returned from London with his artist wife to embrace the quietude. Though their vaguely bohemian lifestyle comes in for a gentle ribbing from the locals, Joe and Kate Ruttledge (respectively played by Barry Ward and Anna Bederke) have also become fixtures in their lives, their house functioning as a kind community centre for the waifs and strays whose hardscrabble existence they neither judge nor romanticise.

Set sometime in the late 1970s, or possibly the early 1980s (the lack of identifiable period signifiers feeds into the immutability of this way of life, even as individual characters fall foul of the march of progress occurring elsewhere), the film is true to the spirit of McGahern’s prose in the sense that nothing much happens, yet everything happens too, something veteran documentary maker Pat Collins – making his fiction debut – understands. Using subtle visual motifs to elucidate the film’s themes, he takes an unhurried approach to his characters’ lives, trusting the audience to understand they’re rich enough and colourful enough to forgo the need for melodramatic embellishment.

Substance isn’t a requirement for action movies. Even so, there’s something a little deadening about the relentless violence of Boy Kills World. Though self-aware enough to work a tongue-in-cheek video game component into its dystopian tale of a plutocratic government controlling its citizenry by culling its criminals on a TV game show, its Hunger-Games-meets-The-Running-Man premise is as derivative as it sounds. Ditto the John Wick-stye action that propels Bill Skarsgård’s mute orphan on a mission to avenge his mother and sister by going after the head of the organisation responsible for their deaths. A third-act twist notwithstanding, director Moritz Mohr mostly seems content to bludgeon us into submission, though Brett Gelman is quite fun as the game show’s murderous creative director. Famke Jansen and Sharlto Copley co-star.

All films on general release from 26 April