“MALCOLM & MARIE”
Malcolm & Marie is nothing short of emotional pugilism. Not a hair is harmed on any head, mind you, yet hearts, feelings, and psyches are pummelled and destroyed over the tumultuous course of its 106 hard minutes on Netflix. It is a wringer of an experience that remarkably takes its loud and large volume of delicately vicious battery and orchestrates mesmerizing renewal that is downright captivating.
Shot in 15 days last summer during the COVID pandemic, the setup of Malcolm & Marie is simple and edited to play as if it’s real-time. John David Washington’s Malcolm is an emerging Hollywood filmmaker. He and his long-time girlfriend Marie, played by Zendaya, have just left his new film’s red carpet L.A. premiere, an event the exuberant creator feels he nailed. They arrive home well after midnight at the decadent modern digs provided to them by the studio. Malcolm is buzzing aloud from all the praise while his lovely date is quiet, hungry, and ready to hit the hay.
He’s galavanting around the den shuffling some music and downing libations. She’s in the kitchen throwing together a box of macaroni and cheese between cigarette breaks. Stealing all the oxygen he can and saturated with a night of fawning and gratification, Malcolm wants to share that energy and hear more from Marie. Underneath that domestic task and those smoky drags, a festering feeling of resignation and disappointment is brimming inside Marie.
LESSON #1: PICK UP THE CUES TO AVOID AN ARGUMENT — As Malcolm rants on his reactions and his industry dreams of seemingly imminent incoming success, she could care less. Even as he moves closer with intimate physical advances, she could still care less. What Marie is holding is something that Malcolm needs to know but is not going to want to hear on his big night. When she warns of that effect, he blows through that provided out. That becomes his second mistake after the first from earlier in the night that is coming to light.
Sure enough, like dry kindling before a forest fire, a small error in words, all over some mac and cheese, becomes the spark that ignites a fiery debate. The grievance is how Malcolm, on his spotlight stage, missed thanking Marie for her contributions to his life and work. He passes it off as forgetfulness, while she channels it as indicative of their entire relationship. After all they’ve been through, how he sees her is questioned in her eyes. When the reasons why each drew those differing lines of distinction emerge, she becomes more and more curt while he is incapable of de-escalating the situation.
LESSON #2: ART IMITATING LIFE AND VICE VERSA — Through wounds opened by sharp words, we learn this couple’s history and how a great deal of Marie’s past was streamlined into the basis of his new movie. She feels like spiritual theft occurred, where her story now belongs to him, his external piece of art, and the other actress cast to play the lead. In her own words, she “didn’t mean to give all that away,” showing the fragile and line-blurring balance between art and life. Mix in shame, guilt, and privilege, and the attacks usurp the apologies in Malcolm & Marie.
LESSON #3: REACTIONS TO PERSONAL AND PROFESSIONAL CRITICISM — To put it bluntly, everyone needs a person that can tell you you’re an asshole when you’re being an asshole. Marie is the person who cannot and will not kiss Malcolm’s ass and it drives him nuts. Her pointed criticism spans across the professional realm and into the personal one, particularly by the time he’s setting off verbal volcanoes on radical art, forced political labels, biased racial lenses, and misplaced film critic praise. Once again, Marie could care less. This is about the two of them and she calls him on it all.
LESSON #4: SAY WHAT YOU MEAN TO SAY — No matter if the words scripted and directed by Euphoria creator Sam Levinson are blaring, hushed, rapid, or sedate, they bleed with honesty coming from the mouths and invested mettle of Washington and Zendaya. In each spaced scene, the crux of authenticity takes prominence when the gloves come off. Cutting the bullshit includes everything from not saying “fine” if something isn’t fine all the way up to the escalating vitriol that poisons a person’s irrational pride enough to belittle another with embarrassment and cruel labels like “emotional terrorist.” The next level of truths past any previously beaten bushes will surely do that.
LESSON #5: DON’T TAKE PEOPLE FOR GRANTED — Marie sees the future and embattled relationship prospects of what this breakout success will bring and do to Malcolm. She sees a lack of jealousy leading to indifference and fears her own marginalization to his fame and work. Zendaya drops an incredible line to say, “Once you know someone is there, you forget about them. It’s when they leave you notice.” Malcolm is the “neediest man” when the reasons for need should be out of love. At the same time there’s a measure of “don’t blame other people for your shit.” Still, there are moments in Malcolm & Marie where the shouting gives way to telling observations and personal outpourings devoid of comeuppance and competition.
The combative conversation chapters are seamlessly separated by an excellent soundtrack of diegetic spins of varying classics curated by music supervisor Jen Malone and backed by a subtle score from Labrinth. What opens with James Brown, swells with John Coltrane, and finishes with Outkast is flawless for mood establishment. These musical interludes are the slick pacing and welcome breathers between the next flurry of jabs and haymakers. Each conversation in Malcolm & Marie ends with a pretty clear winner where a viewer can turn into a boxing judge scoring rounds waiting for a technical knockout. Good luck picking a side in this mental brawl.
If this kind of shouting match was happening in your presence, you would discreetly leave the room and likely the entire grounds. As a film, watching as a voyeuristic presence to this created production, you simply cannot look away from this lush proverbial squared circle. Cinematographer Marcell Rév’s black-and-white filming takes a variety of key positions for each encounter. When he’s shooting through the windows or doorways inside and outside Feldman Architecture’s award-winning Caterpillar House in Carmel, it’s as if the location is trying to contain what can’t hope to be held. Shifting to tight closeups increases the examination effect when those boundaries disappear or are removed from the perspective.
Much of the draw comes from the magnetic two performers. The energetic output from John David Washington is blistering, in his most volatile film performance to date. As powerful as he is, Washington is outdone by his on-screen partner. The vivid Zendaya is an arresting and formidable presence. Her silent teetering between poise and collapse match the screams she’s weathering. Both actors hold after lines and painful pauses as if waiting for that invisible and inaudible ringside bell to sound a temporary ending between the heart-bruising episodes.
Words are weapons in Malcolm & Marie. For Sam Levinson, a former Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award winner from the Sundance Film Festival, writing all of this and squeezing these emotions is staggering. Thanks to his invested direction here on his third feature film, we hang on every word through long takes and challenging sections of dialogue within a lengthy and exhausting affair. Compelling catharsis coming from exposed pain like this is nothing short of impressive. Somewhere, above all the hateful words, all the flaws, and all the tension, love still sears the nerves.