Levinson's most distinguished and honestly best work to date
MALCOLM & MARIE (2021)
As excited as I am to see Godzilla vs. Kong next month, I’m confident that whatever spectacle Warner Bros. has in store is no match for the fight at the core of Sam Levinson & Netflix’s minimalistic melodrama Malcolm & Marie.
Most known for his work on Euphoria, this is Sam Levinson’s third feature film, following Another Happy Day - and the criminally underseen - Assassination Nation. Like Euphoria though, the film not only stars Zendaya, it also explores the theme of recovery. Aside from the fact that it takes place over the course of one night, also very similarly to one of the newest Euphoria “specials” Part 1: Rue (more on that later), this is still his most distinguished and honestly best work to date.
In addition to being shot all in one place with just two characters, the film is also shot in beautiful black and white. The mere choice to drain the color from the film not only gives the audience the ability to literally see our characters unfiltered, it also coincides with the characters stripping themselves and each other physically and emotionally. It’s an excellent subtle choice on Levinson’s part that has an inconspicuous impact.
While the color - or lack thereof - defines the film, it’s Levinson’s versatility that makes it so fun to watch. For a film, at times it feels incredibly theatrical with the way he has his two characters manipulate the foreground and background. The film’s opening also consists of this single take that is so remarkable that it perfectly absorbs you into the story while simultaneously leaving you in awe.
As mentioned before, the film is similar to the recent Euphoria “special” Part 1: Rue, but only in the ways that it takes place at a single location, and that it follows a conversation between the titular characters, Malcolm and Marie. However, that conversation eventually devolves into an argument and from there the film takes off.
John David Washington plays Malcolm, a film director. Zendaya plays Marie, his girlfriend. The two have just attended a premiere for his new film, Imani. Eagerly awaiting the film’s first reviews, Malcolm can’t help but toot his own horn insisting that the critics loved it. Marie listens, but doesn’t really care because something happened at the premiere that she also really doesn’t care to relive. With their minds in two separate places, they eventually clash, and the result is an unpleasant deconstruction of their relationship that threatens to ruin them once and for all.
Also as mentioned before, with Marie being a former addict and Malcolm’s film being based on her experience the film explores recovery. As tough and as much as the argument escalates though, at the same time it’s a strange form of catharsis for both of them. In some ways the film is also a criticism about criticism - both in art and life. Just how heavy words can be and how an opinion can make or break you is explored perfectly by our characters.
ACTING | CHARACTERS | DIALOGUE:
It goes without saying, but John David Washington and Zendaya are incredible here. This might actually be my favorite film from both of them so far. Washington in particular shines as the megalomaniac Malcolm. He’s so outrageous at times he borders on hilarious. In the scene where the very first review for his film comes out online, he lashes out on the website for having a paywall. The result is an outburst and a subsequent search for his wallet that I think everyone might be able to relate to.
Zendaya, on the other hand, has finally shed her Disney Channel skin with this. There will be those that argue she’s already shed it with Euphoria, but even there she’s still playing a teenager. Here, she’s a full fledged adult. Her performance is so raw that you feel emotion in every action she does, from smoking a cigarette to making mac and cheese. While they both got snubbed by the HFPA, I’d be even more surprised if none of them got any love from SAG or the Academy.
VISUAL EFFECTS | MAKEUP | DESIGN:
Because of its minimalistic approach, there are no effects in the film, and makeup plays just as small of a role because for a vast majority of the film Zendaya is all-naturale.
The production design, on the other hand, is great. The house that Malcolm and Marie stay at and argue in almost feels like a character itself at times. And not in the way that the Overlook is a character in The Shining, but rather the way that Malcolm and Marie use the house to hide from each other and to block each other off throughout their fight. The way they try to use the space to their advantage feels similar to the way a toxic divorced couple tries to get their kids to choose sides. The irony is that they don’t even own the house they’re fighting in; it’s a temporary rental they’ve been placed in for the movie premiere. So as much as it feels like a permanent battleground, it really only serves as the platform for them to reach a common ground.
MUSIC | SCORE | SOUND DESIGN:
Instead of an original score, Levinson opts to have frequent collaborator Labrinth in charge of the film’s soundtrack. The result is a perfect playlist that speaks for our characters even when they can’t find the right words themselves. From James Brown to Outkast the soundtrack is ironically colorful, especially for a black and white film.
Now, this film was the first film to be written, financed, produced, and directed during the COVID-19 pandemic, and I purposely didn’t mention that early on because I don’t think this film should be remembered as “that one film made during the pandemic.” It’s so much more.
There’s a moment in the film where our characters speak about authenticity, and in a world ravished by ego and clout, it sometimes hard to remember who we really are with no cameras or other people around. And it’s only fitting that a film, let alone a film made at a time of self-reflection, would depict that. It feels too early to say this, but Malcolm & Marie really is one of the year’s best. Levinson’s direction, Washington and Zendaya’s honest performances, and everything else in between are just perfect, and I refuse to argue about it.