The low hush of cockroaches chirping soundtracks the eerily still image that opens Malcolm & Marie. It’s the epitome of the quiet before the storm. Relinquish the peace: when the titular characters start blazing, there is no putting out that fire.
Director Sam Levinson’s previous success with the gritty yet glittery Euphoria meant his next moves would be closely watched. Malcolm & Marie has been faced with high expectations from its inception. Filmed entirely in lockdown with just a 22-person crew, the film invites you into the lives of a couple returning from the premiere of Malcolm (John David Washington)’s directorial debut. From the minute they enter their swanky, minimalist home, tensions are high – Malcolm has forgotten to thank his girlfriend in his speech, and her displeasure is palpable. From our first meeting with the pair, those tensions do not waver.
Zendaya’s Marie absolutely simmers with unspent anger. She has played an array of adolescent introverts, but in Malcolm & Marie, she is commandingly confident. From the aggressive chop of the butter as Marie prepares Malcolm’s mac and cheese, the irritation radiates from her, so much so you can barely look away for fear of missing a covert glare. Illuminating herself as one of the most electrifying young actresses right now, Zendaya is a complete standout as she flits from taut sensitivity to hypnotically incendiary.
The film soars in its vivid intensity. Unravelling an argument over the space of the night, each phase of it rapidly becomes more vicious and biting. At points, it builds in cruelty and becomes so visceral you have to physically hold your breath. In a scene where Marie has retired to the bath, this hits its peak as she sinks further into the water whilst Malcolm rips her apart, bit by bit. It’s captivating but deeply uncomfortable. It’s an intimately intrusive film, to the extent that watching it almost feels awkward. Such a blatant, raw display of toxicity is rarely on display.
Another highlight is its soundtrack – William Bell’s ‘I Forgot to Be Your Lover’ plays out over a rare moment of quiet between the two. A pause between violent retorts, the track feels all the more poignant. Marie pulls up Dionne Warwick’s ‘Get Rid of Him’ at one point, and it’s a moment of light relief – you’re imploring her to do exactly that.
The film is undoubtedly complicated by a white director using Black voices to express some of his own angst – Malcolm engages with a series of monologues about the reception of his film, and some of them are rightly true. He is aggravated by lazy comparisons to Barry Jenkins or Spike Lee in a completely valid way. However, his monologuing sours when it becomes evident that Levinson is using Malcolm as a mouthpiece for his own aggrievements. It feels exploitative, and the film could’ve benefited from reeling in on the monologues in that sense. Despite the unnaturalistic dialogue, however, Washington salvages it; he’s completely enigmatic as he paces and rages.
At one point, Malcolm laments how “cinema doesn’t need to have a fucking message. It needs to have a heart and electricity,”. Whilst Malcolm & Marie does delve into multiple ‘messages’ of love, Black art, ego and authenticity to varying degrees of success, its saving grace is that very electricity. John David Washington and Zendaya are completely entrancing together. As you wait with bated breath in every moment of affection between the two for things to inevitably turn to fury, it’s hard not to be cast under the pair’s spell. Something about their relentless back and forth is mesmerising – the film has its flaws, but in Zendaya and John David Washington’s magnetism it finds redemption.
Image Credit: The Hollywood Reporter