‘Malcolm & Marie’ Holds Up A Mirror

When a relationship becomes a Hall of Mirrors, your true self becomes nearly impossible to identify. Surrounded by projections, reflections go from affirming to haunting. It’s often easier to lash out, creating fresh wounds—or reopening existing ones—than to heal.

The brutal examination that is Malcolm & Marie is a thing of jagged beauty.

The chatter about the film says so much about us, though:

“Zendaya doesn’t even look like she’s of age next to John David Washington.”

“All they do is argue the whollle tiiiime.”

“Did she really think she was cooking?”

“It’s 40 minutes too long.”

I get the superficial quips and dismissive hot takes. This film is confronting AF. Written and directed by Sam Levinson, it is achingly beautiful to watch; easy on the eyes, but attempted murder on the spirit. Who wants to unpack a movie about two people carrying SO. Much. Baggage?

These two are in a tango, and they’re out for blood. Malcolm & Marie is lithe, fluid and dagger sharp…this was a dance I had to see all the way through to the finish.


If you haven’t seen the film, stop here, go watch if you’ve been on the fence (I vote YES, especially if you enjoy drama at the theater) and then come back. It’s on Netflix.

This film was made during the pandemic, but its story folds in neatly to the constraints of Covid-19 protocol compliant filmmaking. One minimalist location, Zendaya’s home. Two characters, with one wardrobe change each. It’s a study in sheltering in place…in a minefield resembling a home. But this is a pre-Covid world. We know because the inciting incident happens at a packed, Before Times film premiere, complete with after party. It’s Malcolm’s debut as writer-director. Malcolm is all bravado as he glides to The Godfather of Soul at the bar. By contrast, Marie is a vision of stunning beauty and utter depletion from their night out.

Barely off the red carpet, she hits the door, relieves herself and goes from the bathroom right to the kitchen to take care of her Man of the Hour by whipping up a box of mac & cheese at 1:00 am. Malcolm goes right into celebrating himself, high on all the applause and genuflection of critics during the premiere. But not before telling Marie how beautiful his baby looked. Only Marie is still in the bathroom, on the other side of the house. At first, she cannot hear his compliment.

It’s a foreshadowing. Because any compliment Malcolm has for Marie comes at a price: wrapped in a torrent of abusive weapons, from blistering insults and gaslighting to stockpiling past transgressions for deployment during deeply hurtful tirades. Sure, they’re peppered with an “I love you, Marie” here, and promises not to take her for granted there. But this promise is impossible for him to keep. Marie’s literal peace is of no consequence to him. She tries to bathe away the grime of being forgotten and he is unrelenting in his cruelty. For Malcolm, getting the girl isn’t enough. He has to win the battle and the war. He casts Marie’s recovery from drug addiction into the same category as “working harder” like he did as a production grunt. He calls her “unstable”, “intolerable”, and “exhausting”. But Marie isn’t the one fighting the air in the back yard or cursing a positive Los Angeles Times review and its writer a thousand ways. Malcolm is all of the above, but he’s in the Hall of Mirrors and can’t even see himself.

Malcolm has an all too willing sparring partner in Marie. She is raw and chaffed from all his grating and berating, but she is a fighter. She kicked her habit, but her need for external validation still gnaws at her. In the Hall of Mirrors, Marie doubts her first mind and dishonors her feelings. She needed the reactions of others at the after party to realize that she was in fact highly pissed and straight up gutted by Malcolm at the premiere. (And she ain’t wrong. How do you make a whole movie about your girl’s life, and shout out everybody, then fail to mention your muse as she looks at you from the audience?) She demands Malcolm tell her why she wasn’t cast as his lead, but she also allowed self-sabotage to keep her from auditioning. And just when the tide of ire between them ebbs…she pulls him back into the water for the next round of arguing, killing all hope for a future with Malcolm as anyone more than “mediocre”: “you’re set, and this is a good as you’re gonna get”. Undertow in an ocean of tears is certain.

Malcolm and Marie are two grown, deeply needy, wounded people who need therapy as much as they profess to love each other. Their fleeting moments of joy onscreen when they threaten to make up are like oases in a desert. They are also mirages: we never get to the make-up sex, so we have to sit in the tension of these triggers that we all remember from past or current intimate partners. The joy never lasts because Malcolm and Marie don’t know when to stop fighting. Their cups are empty. Neither has anything truly loving to pour into the other. Even their silence is a chasm too uncomfortable for them; that’s how cozy they are lobbing grenades from opposing trenches. When it gets quiet, one of them takes their leave…until the last frame.

Caustic bickering cannot survive as a love language, even when both are fluent.

What are they gonna do? How will they get through? Who do they need to be to escape the Hall of Mirrors?

Malcolm & Marie is a tour de force. Making the insistent demand that we swap ‘they’ for ‘you’ as we watch is its superpower.

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One Response to “‘Malcolm & Marie’ Holds Up A Mirror”

  1. Jack Says:

    I liked the movie but I felt the female lead needed to be someone else. Zendaya seemed like a child beside David Washington. She looked like a child playing dress up.

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