Some would say that Malcolm and Marie is the story of two toxic people. People who get upset unreasonably, act irrationally, and emotionally drain each other. While that is all true, this entire movie feels like an internal dialogue creator Sam Levinson seems to be having with himself. Malcolm and Marie are just the media. So are all actors, one could argue. The actor's job entails bringing the writer/director's vision to life. But in this case, Levinson is serving two opposing parts of his own personality and dressing them as his lead characters. Malcolm is a filmmaker just like Levinson, and his partner Marie is a non-working actor and former drug addict, the same as Levinson.
When Malcolm screens his film at an important event, he thanks every person imaginable in his speech except Marie. This incident becomes the straw that broke the camel's back. Come to think of it, all relationships are balanced on a thin rope of suppressed anger and negative feelings that one sweeps under the carpet in order to avoid confrontation. So, when one finally chooses to express what is bothering them, it can never stay there. A dam breaks and all other transgressions and personal failures are dug out to hurt the other, but more so to defend oneself.
Zendaya and John David Washington are in fine form as they earnestly engage in a series of verbal attacks, monologues, and hurling insults, making the tension in the frame palpable. The direction and cinematography skilfully follow Malcolm and Marie around, making us feel like intruders watching them unravel like a spool of thread just as they are in various stages of undress through the film.
While unearthing past issues and fighting over them is a natural pattern that fights follow, in Malcolm and Marie, the fights even come to resemble a game of chess, where moves have been planned and a strategy has been formed to attack. Malcolm and Marie recount instances, offer explanations for their actions and make impactful arguments too, but in a way that feels less spontaneous and more like a TEDx talk.
This is where the film starts feeling preachy and dense. It feels like Malcolm and Marie have been preparing a critique of one other's character in secret, and this is their showcase. Or probably this is Levinson's critique of himself. Marie's dark history with drugs is a projection of his own. Just like Malcolm, he looks down on critics and their lazy, predictable writing even if it means a good review for him. However, the ‘Marie’ in Levinson doesn't let him believe that he is extraordinary. She tells him that he is full of himself and isn't all that special. The doubt and fear that plays on Malcolm's mind appear to be a reflection of Levinson's feelings. Of having made it this far, and finally getting critical acclaim but not being able to believe it. Malcolm wants to be constantly validated, and so does this film. This is why, even though cruel things are said in the film, none feel hesitant or guilt-ridden. Lines sound rehearsed and viciousness is gradually built up. It ensures that we don’t think one character is any better than the other and feel tempted to take sides. Both are established as co-dependent, selfish, and insecure people who might be bound by habit and ease rather than love and choice.
There are moments in between where Malcolm and Marie make up and make out; they express their admiration for each other. But the “I Love You's” are band-aids on a gunshot wound. With everything laid out, there is nowhere to hide. It makes me wonder if two people in a relationship can survive the truth that one bears about the other. Maybe they can't but Malcolm and Marie most certainly can because they are two sides of the same coin. They are ego and self-awareness. They are in love and in pain.
Despite all the ugly things said in the exhausting ordeal we witness, we know that these two will end up together somehow. Not because they're meant to be but because they deserve it. There is a scene toward the end where Levinson teases Marie's departure, but she's there. She's always going to be there.