"I didn't ask."
Marked as the first film to be written, directed, financed, shot, and, for lack of a better word, produced during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sam Levinson's Malcolm & Marie has the full, undivided attention of many.
Shot on one location with two actors, Malcolm & Marie relies heavily on its few components, presenting itself in real-time as we witness a relationship crumble. After his most recent movie premiere Malcolm (played by John David Washington) is on top of the world. But that high is short-lived as his girlfriend (Zendaya) methodically makes mac' n' cheese between cigarette breaks.
Immediately the film bears a unique tone as Levinson utilizes a noticeably long, distant shot to set the story, showing us a place in which our couple exists on their own. The space allowed generates an eerie sense of disguise, forcing the viewer to feel as if they are eavesdropping on a private moment, meant to never exist beyond the walls that comprise the temporary home the studio has provided them.
But there we sit, silently watching on as Malcolm over articulates his feelings regarding the night's events, and Marie works her way around the kitchen, sputtering a few words when necessary, but, for the most part, allowing her partner to speak his seeming truth.
It's an interesting point that could easily be overlooked; however, it serves as an instrumental introduction to their coexistence as the story, and their past, takes shape. Malcolm, a seemingly smart, confident, educated man, uses big words and high emotion to convey a thought and control the tempo of a conversation. His presence is dominant; his position, as we learn, is that of a savior. Marie, not nearly as sophisticated or verbally astute, doesn't appear to bear the same confidence level. A former addict, she is less assertive in her delivery but understands how to make a point.
It is this dynamic, never fully expressed nor acknowledged, that allows the film to excel. As Marie airs her grievances, setting off a windmill of heightened emotions, including love, anger, affection, sympathy, rage, and lust, the film begins to unceremoniously settle in. Rightfully exhausting from start to finish, Levinson captures the rawness of the confrontation with dialogue that is beautifully hard, berating an unusual sense of elegance that is, in all fairness, almost too perfect for the setting.
As issues unearth, they begin to compound, layering on top of one another, suffocating our two titular characters as they scramble for air amid the cloud of narcissism and self-deprivation. The back and forth, ebb and flow of the conversation is difficult to navigate, especially during the peak emotional moments; however, Levinson uses the limited space to keep the story on edge, consistently painting a new picture with a starkly similar canvas.
John David Washington and Zendaya offer up near-flawless performances, sharing incredible chemistry as they navigate the wreckage of a manipulative and toxic relationship without digging too deep into the events that likely lead to the night's outburst. We never know the whole story, and the mystery of their inner workings generates a unique sense of curiosity from viewers. But those needing a finite conclusion will be frustrated with the film's final scene. Levinson doesn't feel the need to provide all the answers. He trusts his audience to put the pieces together for themselves as Malcolm & Marie proves an honest and practical character study that shows not all relationships are the same.
*This film is available in select theaters and streaming on Netflix.