by Nick L’Barrow
One of the first film announcements to come out during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic came through a black-and-white, still photo of John David Washington and Zendaya in a loving embrace. The photo confirmed they had starred in a film that was shot during the initial lockdowns with strict social distancing protocols, under the helm of HBO’s Euphoria creator Sam Levinson. Just under a year later, after being snatched up and distributed on Netflix, Malcolm and Marie is releasing just in time to contend for this 2021 Oscars, and honestly… it is a damn strong frontrunner!
Malcolm (John David Washington) and Marie (Zendaya) return home at one-in-the-morning after the premiere of Malcolm’s new movie, of which he is the writer and director. Initially Malcolm is concerned about how “woke” critics may receive his work about a young 20-year-old, black woman attempting to get clean, ultimately ranting at Marie while she cooks him macaroni and cheese. However, as a non-responsive Marie begins to frustrate Malcolm, it ignites a long night (or a 100-minute runtime) of back-and-forth arguments that expose the gargantuan flaws in their relationship and in them as troubled people in a troubled world.
Much like his show Euphoria, writer and director Sam Levinson is not afraid to approach topics and themes in an almost casual way through his characters, interweaving them all seamlessly into hyper-realistic conversations or monologues that are expertly performed. Drug addiction, self-harm, cheating, love, death, politics, social media, pop culture, cancel culture, ‘woke’ culture, racism, sexism, relationships, gaslighting, emotional and verbal abuse – literally, no topic is off limits in Malcolm and Marie. Levinson’s script even makes a strong point during one of Malcolm’s rants that movies themselves do not always need to be a vessel for these themes, and that the audience (and mainly critics) are always trying to find the hidden political subtext in script’s messages. While on paper, it does sound like Levinson is making a hypocritical argument, but it is the irony in itself that creates intriguing drama for the story and interesting development for the characters.
As a self-contained story that is set completely in one location (being a very fancy house that the production company has put Malcolm and Marie in for the night of the premiere), the film utilises smooth and immersive cinematography (including an amazing one-shot opening scene that lasts about 10 minutes) and incredibly engaging dialogue written in a way that feels larger than life, elongated monologues that perfectly roll of the tongue with an incredibly varied vocabulary. However, there is a simultaneous feeling that these conversations and arguments would happen between a couple. That relatability, even with it’s over-emphasised dialogue, comes through the two knock-out performances from Washington and Zendaya.
As the Oscars race begins to reach its climax, Washington passionately delivers scene after scene of highly energetic and perfectly paced speeches that are consistently observed with eyes and ears wide open in awe, solidifying his chance for a nomination. It’s a career defining performance in a succession of amazing previous performances from Washington. His portrayal of Malcolm mixed with Levinson’s script doesn’t always make him a likeable character, often reacting emotionally in the moment saying very blunt and hurtful things to Marie, but in an instant can bring you back with incredible statements about society.
The most understated aspect of the film in Zendaya as Marie. Marie is timid and placid at the film’s start, often dismissively agreeing with everything Malcolm says, to which she even states that she’s restraining herself to avoid a long night of arguing (something that soon is uprooted as she’s pushed to a proverbial edge by Malcolm annoying persistence). It’s Marie’s slow unravelling overtime that forces the audience’s attention to always be on her. Where Malcolm is the explosion, Marie is the countdown timer, and Zendaya captures that attention with such nuance that is impossible not to commend it as a perfect performance for this role. Once Marie is forced out of her comfort zone and begins her retaliatory attack on Malcolm’s words, the emotionally heavy revelations about her character are only as impactful due to Zendaya’s honest portrayal of Marie, expressing an incredible acting range that creates a longing to see her in more roles like this.
Malcolm and Marie is 100 minutes of emotionally dense yet amazing dialogue set in one location with only two characters. It is not going to be a Friday night, relaxing film night watch. This is not one of those movies watched for just entertainment purposes, even though in it’s own right, it is entertaining. It’s ultimately watching an energetic play, and when it pops up on Netflix February 5th, if you’re in the mood for that type of movie, then it’s definitely worth the watch.