Director Malcolm (John David Washington) and his girlfriend Marie (Zendaya) arrive home from the premiere of his debut film. He pours himself a drink. She makes Mac n Cheese. And they watch one another. As the night drags on, the pair start to argue. Bitter pasts are revisited, old wounds reopened, and by morning nothing will be the same. Will their relationship survive being brought to the brink?
The trailer for Netflix’s new film, Malcolm & Marie, has the look and feel of a fine cologne advert. Two beautiful actors in John David Washington and Zendaya, rendered in black and white, smoulder and scowl at one another in the beautiful Hollywood Hills. All class and style – but by the time you get beyond the film’s title card, you’ll be very aware that all the surface gloss covers up 90 minutes of pure toxicity.
The venom which spews forth from the two characters, film director Malcolm and his girlfriend Marie, really homes in on the unspoken power dynamics which can come to define relationships. Malcom & Marie, from the start, also lets rip on hypocrisies in the film industry and the stigmas that face addicts.
This highly charged subject matter has left the film in the line of fire of plenty of critics. Reviewers who have slammed the movie for perpetuating toxic masculinity and racial biases, in my opinion, have missed the point. This film shines a light on the ugliness in all relationships, in every trade-off or difference of opinion. Malcolm and Marie may be about the most fucked up, dysfunctional couple you’ll ever meet; but they are still a couple, in many ways, like any other with their own personal agenda and flaws.
Sam Levinson both writes and directs Malcolm & Marie, and so cops a lot of the critics’ heat. However, the film is very impressive when you consider its constraints. Shot during the Covid-enforced lockdown, the film takes place in one house and the surrounding gardens, yet this claustrophobia never feels gimmicky like other lockdown film projects.
Black and white (in vogue after Mank) gives the movie a touch of class that Levinson carefully tears down. Tracking shots outside the house give us an omnipotent view of what both Malcolm and Marie are doing simultaneously, ensuring the balance of power and empathy between them shifts constantly.
The script is also very good. The dialogue flows naturally as the characters probe each other’s flaws before blowing up into full-blown cancerous soliloquies as the film progresses. When the two are going at each other we are rarely bored, and Levinson keeps us guessing about what chink in the armour Malcolm and Marie will go for next. Malcolm’s indulgent monologue about film aside, what others called a ‘talkathon’ is to me an engaging argument with no real winner bar the viewer.
I’ve seen very few films with the same cast dynamics as Malcolm & Marie. Asking two actors to sustain an entire feature length film is tricky; they need incredible chemistry to maintain tension and pacing. In the film, Zendaya’s character talks about the need for mystery to sustain a relationship. This statement is also key to how Washington and Zendaya themselves bounce off one another. Every new revelation, every barbed retort, reveals new layers of the relationship and brings changes to the characters’ motivations.
Washington is a little too melodramatic, especially when compared to the different levels of intensity he reached in other works like BlackkKlansman, while Zendaya oddly comes off as too wooden and impassive. However, these are minor quibbles with what are otherwise truly breathless performances.
The film’s deliberately open conclusion, a whimper after the bang, points to the violent draining of emotions we all feel after watching Malcolm & Marie. It’s a firework of a film, all sound and fury, and is worth watching alone for the immense chemistry between Washington and Zendaya.
Couples will see shades of themselves in Malcolm & Marie. Our empathy swings unpredictably between the two characters and momentum barely flags despite the contained story. 7.5/10.