Malcolm (John David Washington) and Marie (Zendaya) have just returned home from Malcolm’s big movie premiere. What should have been one of the most enjoyable and celebratory nights of their lives, turns into a brutal and emotionally raw argument that makes Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”masochistic verbal pummeling look more like an episode of “Leave It to Beaver” as June and Ward Cleaver. Awaiting the first formal review, Malcolm and Marie peel away the layers of their lives to discover the ugly pain that lies beneath the surface.
First, I must relay that I am a white (middle aged) female film critic writing for a newspaper…the very enemy—albeit on a smaller scale — that is referenced in this rivetingly accusatory (deservedly-so) film that feels more like a theatrical stage production than a movie, but in all the right ways. Now that that admission is clearly on the table, dare I say that “Malcolm & Marie” is an incredibly “authentic” story filled with emotional turmoil that rings true? Yes, I will because it’s accurate. It is also gorgeously shot, in black and white, narrowly but crisply focusing on the truths which opens old wounds and then pours salt in them, watching how it effects the recipient.
The story unfolds over the course of less than 12 hours, but what it reveals about each of the characters and who they are at their core allows us to know them but also to see them grow…for better or worse. And the range of emotions takes us as high as a mountain and down to the lowest valley as this young couple who knows one another better than any married couple of a half a century attempts to wade thorough the muck and mire of their past. We see Malcolm puff his chest omnisciently, looking down upon Marie as she soaks in a tub, seemingly unprotected, as he fires off threats of being able to break her like a twig with his verbal onslaught. It’s rough, powerful, and disturbing, but just as we begin to feel the pain of Malcolm’s shots, Marie, who has the emotional exterior of an armored knight, fires back. One minute the hatred and resentment that is spewed from their mouths is then tempered with acceptance and understanding. It’s truly a roller coaster ride as both characters are not only honest with each other but also with themselves.
The “authenticity” (I use quotes as this is directly from the film) is the fact that Malcolm and Marie bring you into their fight as I found myself saying the exact words Marie was about to say aloud to Malcolm. Both characters are smart and tough and neither is ever emotionally highjacked for long allowing for calm moments interjected to create a balance in the story and in the relationship. Marie is angry and from a woman’s point of view, I completely understood her immediate and long-buried issues. As the water for the mac-n-cheese begins to boil, so too does her temper. Marie’s body language says it all, but the words pulsate with intensity until she reaches the ultimate crescendo. Matching that, Malcolm fires back like a fully loaded verbal machine gun with the accuracy of a sharp shooter. They know each other’s strengths and weakness.
It’s a perfect portrayal of Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus as issues of infidelity, race, entitlement, drug usage, recovery, plagiarism, credit, and empathy are masterfully woven into the story, seen from each perspective. Marie feels she has received no gratitude for her part in his successes or their relationship. And Malcolm, accused of being narcissistic, compartmentalizes the argument so that he can eat his boxed macaroni and cheese. And as the make up and clothes come off, their true selves are more accurately displayed and they are no longer actors on the screen and we are flies on the wall, riveted by what we see and hear. The story and our beloved characters fight with love in order to be able to love possibly more deeply or perhaps to their demise. This narrative arc rises and falls creating an unparalleled story of passion and understanding amidst the chaos.
Davidson and Zendaya are captivating as they must be to carry the entire weight of the film. Of course, Zendaya is gorgeous to watch, but her talent goes much deeper. Her responses, both verbally and physically create a myriad of emotions and we feel them all. Davidson is her equal, giving us a performance of a lifetime and together they are mesmerizing. The film is simply just a conversation that leads to an argument between the two of them, but the dialogue is strong and magically eloquent. The pacing quickly races as do our hearts as the heat rises. It is with awe that I watched, realizing the daunting task of memorizing the lines of dialogue, resembling soliloquies at times, but the emotion, never too much and never too little, is an integral part of each and every word uttered. The pain that is inflicted upon them both from their razor sharp tongues filled with gut-wrenching honesty is visible with just a flinch of an eye or a downward gaze. While the story replicates many familiar age-old arguments with timeless issues among the clutter of their lives, this bold and flawless film dares us all to be honest in love to see where the chips fall.
“Malcolm & Marie” premieres on Netflix Friday, Feb. 5