Malcolm & Marie Review: Zendaya and Washington are stellar in an exhaustive night of combative arguing and tension
Euphoria and Assassination Nation writer/director Sam Levinson reteams with Zendaya for Malcolm & Marie – a rollercoaster of emotions driven by ongoing tensions between a film director and his girlfriend over his latest film and their relationship.
Aside from the very moody black and white cinematography from Marcell Rev and the great music from Labrinth, the thing that instantly stands out about Malcolm & Marie is the tone that Levinson establishes through the performances and his direction. There’s a clear sense of tension from start with how film director Malcom (John David Washington) and his wife Marie (Zendaya) are on polar opposite ends of the emotional spectrum. While Malcolm is spilling his ego all over the room while ranting and raving about the reactions he received from his directorial debut, Marie looks as if she’s holding in a thought that’s eating away at her. Tensions quickly boil over, and Levinson really brings viewers into Malcolm and Marie’s tumultuous night through the camera. Through great framing, strong camera movement, and a great use of film’s central location Levinson makes you feel as if you’re right in the center of their cutthroat arguments – which can work against the viewing experience of the film.
It’s actually funny how there’re moments in the film where Malcom and Marie say that the other is exhausting because it’s truly the film in a nutshell. The way their arguments seem done and then suddenly spiral back into another sequence of crude and callus comments can be so infuriating that you slowly begin to loathe these two. It’s really like Levinson immerses you in a personal hell where there’s an ongoing argument that’s continuous and retreads the same issues again and again. With their literally being no other characters in the film other than its titular couple, the viewing experience can become tiresome in the film’s early stages. There was specifically a moment around the 30-minute mark when they started retreading their original argument about Marie being bothered that Malcolm didn’t thank her during his speech at the premiere where I started to tune out and was then horrified to see that there was still over an hour of this arguing left. However, the film isn’t just senseless arguing as it presents intriguing thoughts about criticism and fleshes out the flaws of its two leads.
There’s no doubt that the narcissistic qualities of Malcolm and Marie as well as their persistence to make comments that tear the other one down makes them characters you often loathe more than love, but the way Levinson creates a greater understanding draws you back in. As their arguments escalate and their digs bring out some personal trauma that plagues their relationship, you really begin to understand the ins and outs of their history together better. It’s crazy how Malcolm’s film brings out so many issues in their relationship and dredges up a lot of past trauma – especially for Marie. Out of the two, Marie definitely has the stronger, more emotionally engaging connection with how Malcolm’s film has changed her perspective on their relationship and her own story. Marie isn’t perfect though as her own personal, self-deprecating feelings make things a little more complicated and it makes for some heartbreaking realizations as blame is dished out that are elevated through two amazing lead performances.
Honestly, Zendaya and Washington have proved themselves to be incredible rising talents time and time again, but with Malcolm & Marie they rise to a whole new level. Washington delivers some world-class rants about film criticism and filmmaking that sees Malcolm’s ego consume him more and more as the night goes on and is pretty entertaining to watch. His criticism on critics is fair given how their reactions politicize his film without it having any political intentions behind it and it definitely leaves an impact. I certainly will be more cautious about my use of the word authentic going forward. There’re moments though where we see how his experiences influenced his film that Washington totally nails and shows a much deeper, more genuine side to Malcolm.
As said before though, Marie has the stronger emotional pull and it’s in large part to Zendaya’s performance and the screen presence she gives Marie. Personally, I’ve never seen Euphoria, but after seeing what Levinson and Zendaya can bring together here, I’ve clearly been missing out. From how she maintains this dominating stance in arguments that puts Malcolm in his place to her equally amazing rants about Malcolm not recognizing her impact in his career and personal life, Zendaya really delivers one of her strongest performances yet. What really cuts deep though is how she makes Marie’s personal hurt over her own story being stolen by Malcolm in the making of his film as it emphasizes the impact of storytelling and fleshes out hidden scars that make you connect with Marie on a deep level.
Although its argumentative nature creates a viewing experience that will be too tiresome for some to conquer, there’s a lot to like about Malcolm & Marie. Levinson’s ability to continually draw viewers into the film’s night of cold tension and flesh out its central couple’s deep-seeded trauma that stems from their toxic relationship makes the film such a compelling character study. It also helps that Zendaya and Washington really give it their all from start to finish to turn a seemingly celebratory night into a tense and exhausting evening of conflict.