It’s 1 a.m. and Malcolm (John David Washington) and Marie (Zendaya) return home from the premiere of Malcom’s film, a film which left the audience in tears and the critics raving. This should be a time of celebration for the director and his muse, except there is something bubbling under the surface of every interaction they have. With each confrontation comes a tentative resolution, a brief respite, until a riposte or unexpected thought sends them back into defensive positions, aiming to wound with each new pithy response or devastating declaration. By the time morning arrives, the question becomes: will what was ever be again?
Conceived, written, workshopped, and produced in 2020, writer/director Sam Levinson’s (Assassination Nation) Malcolm & Marie follows a few hours in the life of couple Malcolm, a director in the afterglow of his film’s premiere, and Marie, his girlfriend, as they spar for power position. Using nothing but a house seemingly in the middle of nowhere as the scene, actors John David Washington (TENET) and Zendaya (Spider-Man: Far From Home) present the unraveling and raveling of a relationship with all the humor, pain, discomfort, and beauty that a real fight contains.
Put simply, Malcolm & Marie is a rich text of a film. It’s proof of the talent Zendaya and Washington possess as actors as they are capable of delivering profound dialogue that weighs in tons which consistently takes the shape of monologues versus back-and-forth diatribes. It’s evidence of the talent of cinematographer Marcell Rév (Euphoria), as the black-and-white aesthetic speaks to the minimalistic nature of the story as well as focuses the audience on the actors and their performances rather than on the color or production design. It’s a testament to the power of direction, as Levinson plotted his stage and blocked his actors’ movements so that long takes are not only possible, they invite the audience to feel as though they are in the middle of the fight with Malcolm and Marie, not just passively watching a film. It’s also a meta-criticism on racial and gender politics in art, examining how one’s race often impacts how others presume you see your art: that being a Black man automatically makes anything you create a statement on society’s response to your existence or how being a man at all prevents you from seeing what others see. To a degree, Levinson has created a modern No Exit, in which Malcolm and Marie seem destined to fight over and over, rarely giving an inch, determined to be the victor as they construct and deconstruct their relationship, their wins, and their loses over and over, except where the message in No Exit can be distilled into “Hell Is Other People,” Malcolm & Marie has a more positive message that while we are bound to each other, the simple act of appreciation is the greatest form of love there is.
It’s never in question how these characters feel about each other. Through their performances, Zendaya and Washington convey characters that possesses a deep love for one another because of and in-spite of their respective flaws. These are not two-dimensional characters, either. Offering career-best work, these scene partners do more than bring Malcolm and Marie to life, they make them complex, full-formed, and real. So much so that, through line and physical delivery, the audience jumps sides in the conflict multiple times before the end. One reading, and this is my own, is that the film does conclude with a clear right-and-wrong, a winner declared, if anyone really wins from a long-brewing fight due to lack of communication and respect. The fact, though, that the audience might, even for a moment, consider a different perspective speaks highly of these performances as the dialogue alone (while superb, knowing when to push and slash vs. to slow and mend) wouldn’t serve to change minds as easily. Zendaya’s been in the public eye for years between her work for Disney and in the MCU, but 2020 saw a shift with her critically acclaimed performance in the HBO series Euphoria, which Levinson writes and directs. Having not seen the program, I can’t speak to her work there, but, as Marie, she charms, seduces, and devastates, easily slipping into and out of each emotion as easily as anyone else processing resentment against a deep love. Zendaya is absolutely natural as Marie, so much so that the actor disappears and only the personage of the character remains. Washington has a shorter CV, but is no less accomplished with leading roles in BlacKkKlansman (2018) and 2020’s TENET. His performance as Malcolm, though, reveals his true talents and leading man capabilities. Washington, like Zendaya, possesses a natural charm and charisma, making it easy to stay locked in whether they are being kind or torturous to each other. Having that charm is necessary for the audience to be drawn in to Malcolm who is, at first at least, the victimizer, so that we will consider his side of events, his perspective, in order for the film not to contain an uneven emotional weight within the argument. Unlike his last two major roles, Washington also ceases to exist and only Malcolm remains. The charming sonofabitch that he is. Not that Marie is any better, to a degree, which is what makes the actors’ ability to convince us of their respective righteousness and villainy so damned impressive.
Given the conversation within Malcolm & Marie regarding critical analysis in cinema, I must refrain from using words like “masterful” or “authentic” in order to avoid the very pitfalls the film presents as a vacuous use of language. Yet, without question, watching Malcolm & Marie is clearly a bit of both. As written by Levinson and performed by Washington and Zendaya, what we observe is as natural an argument between two people compared to the unnaturally heightened form typically observed in cinema. Marie isn’t “highly emotional” while Malcolm is level-headed nor is the inverse true. They are multifaceted, complex people who can shift from screaming at the top of their lungs to giggling like idiots at the ridiculousness of the topic to attempting to shoveling food into their mouths in-between self-centered retorts. The fact that neither Zendaya nor Washington become archetypes or stereotypes, but maintain their humanity speaks incredible volumes of their respective talent. The fact that Rév makes sure that the framing of each shot tells a story unto itself, such as when the camera positions itself inside the bedroom so that we, the audience, see the empty bed as we look outside to the dark woods surrounding the home or when the camera slides around the window-covered structure so as to maintain pace and position with the cast as they move. Sure, an edit would work fine here to show us precisely where the cast has gone, but the continued use of long takes generates a feeling of spontaneity, something which almost every argument contains. In fact, that feeling of spontaneity, pervading each moment (argumentative or not), beautifully tricks the audience into believing that each spoken word wasn’t crafted by a clear script. Even the script itself, stripped down to its core, is thoughtful and engaging. Like the argument itself, Levinson’s story is about something deeper than the catalyst. It’s about what binds two people together, especially two people who claim to love one another. Except people have a complicated way to express love and not all have the same love language. This exploration proves volatile for Malcolm and Marie and, to some degree, there is no hard resolution to offer an answer. To offer one, I think, would make the film too cinematic by way of a button before the credits. The fact that there remains a debate to be had on the audience’s side enables the material presented before us to linger, to gnaw, and, perhaps, to incite conversation.
Beautiful, painful, hilarious, and uncomfortable, Malcolm & Marie is a declarative statement, one which heralds the talent of the cast and crew via the ingenuity, care, and obvious craft that is presented in the undertaking. This isn’t a film which will change lives or perspectives personally, but it will certainly shift how audiences see Zendaya and Washington. With this film, they have proof of the powerhouses they are. We are not ready for what’s next, but we’ll most certainly buy a ticket to see it.
In select theaters in January 2021.
Available for streaming on Netflix February 5th, 2021.
Final Score: 5 out of 5.