Staying busy during lockdown, Sam Levinson shot three projects thus far: two Euphoria specials and Malcolm & Marie, one of the first major productions shot in compliance to COVID-19 restrictions. His new feature is a single location acting showcase that sees a film director (John David Washington) and his long-suffering girlfriend (Zendaya) argue in the wake of his movie premiere. The project was dreamed up by Levinson and his Euphoria collaborator Zendaya during a period of lockdown restlessness, and the screenplay was apparently written by Levinson in just six days. That hastiness shows somewhat in a script that doesn’t quite coalesce—although it’s a film with a lot on its mind, bolstered by two compelling performances.

Malcolm & Marie is visually dynamic from the start, with cinematographer Marcell Rév making impressive use of the sprawling, sparse rooms and glassy walls of the remote house where the entire film takes place. The central couple returns home from Malcolm’s movie premiere in two very different moods: Malcolm is practically bouncing off the walls with energy; Marie heads straight to the bathroom to get away from him, visibly tired and annoyed. When Marie joins Malcolm in the living room area, the blocking of the actors and the camera speaks volumes to the couple’s disconnection. Marie leans against the doorframe leading outside and smokes, half in and half out of the room; Malcolm speaks quickly and effusively, dancing in circles around the couch, while Marie stays stock still. Rév captures the whole scene in a long take, tracking back and forth with Malcolm’s movement but always staying closest to Marie, so we notice the veiled frustration he ignores.

Marie eventually admits she’s annoyed that Malcolm forgot to thank her in his pre-film introduction, which triggers a long and toxic argument, exposing raw nerves in their relationship, and reveals the full extent of Malcolm’s obnoxiousness. It’s a surprisingly receptive, accurate portrait of a charismatic male asshole. The film understands how even a woman as smart and no-bullshit as Marie could get sucked into a cycle of hating then loving then hating him again. “It is inconceivable to you that there is anyone else on this planet who is more interesting than you are” is just one of the many biting truths Marie spits at him as she undresses layer after layer of his neglect and egocentrism. He tries to make Marie feel bad for expecting him to thank her in his speech; he berates her while devouring a bowl of mac and cheese that she made him; and he uses traumatic stories from Marie’s past with drug addiction against her. Still, the couple keeps clawing their way back from moments of pure vitriol to loving reconciliation.

It’s a sadly accurate depiction of a deeply entwined, toxic relationship, and a lot of the credit for that goes to Washington, who chews up the screen in his greatest performance yet. It’s tricky to play someone who oscillates violently from loud and hateful to cool and charming, yet Washington does so while still making Malcolm feel like a cohesive character. When Malcolm is on an impassioned tirade, Washington’s physical presence is huge and overwhelming as he gesticulates wildly and stomps around the house, his voice booming. He’ll cut Marie off and search for any possible reason why she’s wrong. But anytime Marie backs Malcolm into a logic corner he can’t worm his way out of, Washington becomes utterly still. He admits defeats in a tone of voice akin to a child who’s been caught doing something naughty. Marie calls Malcolm “the neediest man I’ve ever dated,” and we can see that in the way Washington squeezes her tight and pleads for a kiss just moments after screaming at her.

Zendaya is a compelling counter to Washington’s off-the-wall energy. It’s hard not to draw comparisons with her Emmy-winning performance as Rue in Euphoria: Rue is a drug addict and Marie is a former drug addict who got clean five years ago. And yet the two performances couldn’t feel more different: Zendaya plays Rue with a slouch and a mumble, whereas her Marie is a demure woman who knows herself much better, but still has a lot of Rue’s wit. Unfortunately, while the age gap between the 24-year-old Zendaya and the 36-year-old Washington is addressed in the script, the film doesn’t fully grapple with it. There’s a mention of the dubious circumstances under which their relationship began—she was 20 and in the vulnerable states of relapse and recovery, he was in his 30s—but the film doesn’t fully dig its claws into what that means, instead treating them like two people with the same amount of life experience. It leaves Zendaya stretching to embody the physicality and voice of someone older than her, which she never fully settles into, through no fault of her own.

It will be fascinating to see how the film critic community reacts to Malcolm & Marie. Within the first five minutes, Malcolm has unfavorably referenced Variety and IndieWire, which will undoubtedly result in no shortage of thinkpieces. Although contrary to a film like Birdman, Malcolm & Marie asks us to think critically of this attack on critics by putting it in the mouth of the angry, irrational Malcolm, and having Marie gently debate his brash statements. There’s a lot of truth to his complaints about the whiteness of the film industry, and film criticism specifically. But he also aims his disgust at “the white lady from the L.A. Times” and not “the white guy from IndieWire,” assuming she doesn’t understand filmmaking or doesn’t know who William Wyler is without any evidence to prove his point. On top of that, the part of her review that leaves him most indignant is her criticisms of his depiction of violence against women. Malcolm’s frustrations over being stereotyped as a Black filmmaker are warranted and passionately voiced, but he’s also unwilling to admit to the privilege he holds as a man, as a respected filmmaker, and as someone from a relatively wealthy background. It’s not critics the film attacks, but gatekeepers who don’t understand their own privilege, whether that’s the white lady from the L.A. Times or Malcolm himself.

Malcolm & Marie is surprisingly accomplished given the speed and unprecedented circumstances under which it was produced, although I can’t help but imagine how a few extra weeks—or months—of development on the script could have elevated it. The central relationship, which is so compelling in the moment, suffers from a lack of context. Where does this fight fit into the arc of their relationship? Is this the worst fight they’ve ever had? They flippantly call it that at one point, but given how quickly they tend to reconcile, it’s hard to trust such a statement made in the heat of the moment. Is this the fight that will change their relationship forever, or even end it, or is it one of many similar fights before it? I wanted to know what life would look like for Malcolm and Marie in the morning, when they drove back into the city and faced their toxic relationship in the light of day. Perhaps the ambiguity is the point for Levinson, but it means the film lacks a point of view, even if it’s gripping in the moment.

Malcolm & Marie arrives on Netflix on February 5.

Grade: B

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