Sam Levinson’s new movie Malcolm and Marie, starring Zendaya and John David Washington, was released on Netflix on February 5th, 2021. Shot during the pandemic, the film is set entirely in the confines of a luxurious mansion in Carmel, California with floor to ceiling glass windows. Malcolm, a movie director and one of the main characters, just had the biggest night of his life winning accolades and praise for his movie about a girl fighting drug addiction. While Malcolm celebrates, Marie, his girlfriend, takes issue with Malcolm for not thanking her in his acceptance speech. The argument unfolds throughout the night, leaving audiences gasping at the intimate details of their lives which arise. Riding the waves of highs and lows, the pair cycles through phases of resentment, sexual tension, and forgiveness.
In the most soul-shaking scene, Malcolm spins their intimate knowledge of each other into a weapon, blaming Marie for being too sensitive, too self-destructive. He gets angry that Marie ruined his big night. We find out that his movie was modeled after Marie’s life down to the smallest detail. He felt his license to use her as material came from saving her from the streets and her life of drug use. “I can snap you like a twig,” he says “you are an addict, right? That’s what makes you so fucking unique, right? That’s what makes your contribution so much more significant.” With the power in his hands, Malcolm abuses it. “You are not special, the movie was never about you.”
Critics have been harsh in their reviews of the film. “Turn the movie off at the 20-minute mark and you can ultimately still say you’ve seen the entire thing. ” K. Austin Collins writes in his Rolling Stones article.
Malcolm and Marie explores the intimate dynamics of a toxic relationship, but some distractions along the way muddle the overall message. The movie is shot in black and white, the house as an integral set design is an architectural feat. Zendaya blesses the audience's eyes with a gorgeous designer dress made by Jason Rembert with metallic details, bold cutouts, and a powerful slit. However, the director tries to infuse the movie with an indie, artistic air for no particular reason other than coming off as cool.
Zendaya’s performance is outstanding and raw, and digs deep into the emotional complexities of a toxic relationship. On the other hand, much of Washington’s character’s monologue gets lost in the white noise of the whiny boyfriend stereotype. He stomps his feet, complains about critics and their cold ‘purist, moralistic, academic nonsense.’ He screams about the stupidity of a white woman critic who spoke ill of his movie. Overall, his character falls into a schtick that comes off as inauthentic.
Malcolm goes on rants that seem irrelevant to where the movie is trying to arrive at. He points out how the movie industry always expects Black men to make racial political movies, that they are boxed in creatively. He screams into air how male movie makers try to make movies about women without the appropriate sensibilities for a compelling story. Ironically, Sam Levinson does the same. As a white director, he filters his commentaries through the voice of two Black actors. Are the commentaries in this film truly authentic to a Black screenwriter and director?
Throughout the movie, many references are made to non-mainstream films and filmmakers that are completely inaccessible to the general public. Film is spoken in such vague academic terms that it is hard to understand what he is talking about. The audience is left confused, wondering whether Levinson is trying to make art or using this film as a personal complaint letter to the Hollywood film industry. It distracts the viewer and discredits the raw emotional scenes that Zendaya and Washington worked hard to breathe life into.
It is clear that the couple should not stay together. The power that Malcolm has over Marie is not healthy. Audiences root for Marie to leave Malcolm. However, the ending is unsatisfying. The morning after Malcolm and Marie finish fighting, Malcolm wakes up to find that Marie is gone. Where did she go? From the bedroom looking out to the backyard, we see Marie, looking out into the distance as Malcolm rejoins her. If the movie had ended differently, perhaps there would have been more of a clear point.
Imagine Malcolm waking up in the morning, look to the other side of the bed and seeing Marie is gone. As he searches through the house, he can’t find her. He screams her name, but it’s silent. If the movie had cut there, it would have left something to the imagination, something for viewers to think about. What would Marie have done? There was an earlier scene where Marie was gone, and it turns out she was in the bathroom. Was she in the bathroom this time, or did she leave him?
Perhaps an alternative ending to the film would have left the audience more satisfied and walking away with a thought. It would not have felt as if they watched a movie that wasted their time. It is undeniable that the movie took everyone on a journey. Some parts were confusing. Some parts hit hard. Overall, the movie presents some show-stopping performances while lacking a central message.