‘Malcolm & Marie’ is a Slasher Film
SPOILERS FOLLOW. Netflix’s Malcolm & Marie is not a romantic drama. It is a distillation of a toxic, abusive relationship that fails to face its central premise head on. Malcolm & Marie is about emotional violence and the elisions and manipulation that cover it up. The film was marketed very differently, and I think the bait and switch backfired. Audiences went in expecting a movie about a couple quarreling, perhaps even viciously at times, but the trailers gave the impression that we’d see something of a loving relationship between the charming, beautiful couple played by Zendaya and John David Washington, not an unrelenting cascade of escalating emotional abuse tactics.
The choice of marketing campaign is so baffling, because the opening shot of Malcolm & Marie tells the audience clearly the nature of the film they are about to watch. It is the exterior of an isolated, glass-walled modernist house. It is night. Everything is in shadow. It feels sinister — film noirish. When the film opened, I recalled a line from Susanna Clarke’s novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel, where she describes a mansion as the kind of house a lady would be persecuted in. The reference, I soon discovered, was apt. The beautiful, immaculately decorated setting of Malcolm & Marie is a kind of prison.
The opening shot, which seems like a still, lingers as credits of the kind you would see in the old black and white films Malcolm loves to reference roll. Then bright headlights appear over a crest into the driveway. Our leading man and lady arrive. They are dressed to the nines, having just returned home from the premiere of Malcolm’s film. It is one o’clock in the morning. Marie looks stunning, but she is obviously exhausted and heads straight to the bathroom to relieve herself. Malcolm puts on James Brown’s “Down and Out in New York City,” and turns it up full blast. When the horns started blaring, I sighed. It was the first red flag for the emotional abuse, one that often gets overlooked: the noise nuisances and disturbances abusive people often create to control the rhythms of people’s lives. You’re tired; you’re not getting any rest. You’re asleep; I’ll wake you up. I won’t let you have peace and quiet or be able to hear your own voice in your head. Shouting over the music, Malcolm tells Marie that she looked beautiful. She shouts back that she can’t hear him, and they go back and forth. It might have been amusing, but there was the second red flag: the noise disturbance (or other inconsiderate behavior) being chased by a bit of praise. Now, if Marie shows any displeasure, she’s being a bitch.
It is also Malcolm’s special night. His film was well-received and seems like it will get good reviews, and he’ll be able to take a step up in his career. He wants to celebrate. Doesn’t he deserve to? Malcolm dances around the living room singing along to the music and jumps up on the furniture like a child on the playground. Marie, looking more annoyed than tired now, puts on a pot of water to boil. She’s making macaroni and cheese — the type that comes in a box with powdered cheese. It’s a meal you’d serve to a toddler. As Marie prepares the late night snack, she and Malcolm begin to argue about his failure to thank her at the premiere. When she sets the bowl of gloopy noodles down for Malcolm, and it becomes clear that she hadn’t made any for herself, the tone of the story is set: an exhausted woman is catering to the whims of a man with the palate and emotions of a child. It’s worse than that, though.
As Malcolm and Marie’s argument continues to escalate, we learn that the film Malcolm is earning accolades for is based in large part on Marie’s life, specifically her struggle to recover from a serious substance abuse problem. We also learn that she believed they’d make the film together and that she would have been cast as the lead. She helped Malcolm develop the story and the script, mining her pain for the authenticity he belittles and rejects as the refuge of unsophisticates who don’t appreciate or understand cinema. Marie laments that she will never be able to tell her own story now and calls what Malcolm did a “spiritual theft.” She thought she was working on and building something with a partner, but a parasite was feeding on her.
Who gets to tell your story is important. Abusers do everything they can to take that over and make themselves the protagonists in the lives of the people they target. They are thieves. Something is not right about people who can take like that. The film never shows us that clearly, though. It plays as Malcolm and Marie exchanging punches and trying to hurt each other. During a particularly brutal exchange that Malcolm himself says is intended to be an “evisceration,” he tells Marie he could “snap her like a twig.” These aren’t just words. They convey a violent intent that goes deeper than trying to one-up someone in an argument. They are about regaining control and dominance and breaking a person down. Malcolm follows up with an abuser classic: the “after everything I did for you!” monologue, then he exhaustively lists the other women he’s been with and who ostensibly inspired his script, in order to demean Marie and diminish her contribution. He goes in for the kill, repeatedly. In a way, Malcolm & Marie is a slasher film, and the knife-wielding killer is Malcolm’s eggshell ego.
I don’t believe every relationship shown on film should be positive. Toxic relationships exist and should be explored. It’s not the toxicity of the relationship in Malcolm & Marie that’s the problem; it’s the lack of depth of exploration of the partnership, the implication that it’s not that bad or that it may even be normal, if fraught. There also isn’t any real attempt to address the imbalance of power. People like Malcolm are operating at the extreme end of a spectrum. That is masked by the lack of physical violence. The sequestration of the only two characters on screen makes it more difficult to provide context and contrast, but it’s possible.
Malcolm & Marie was written and directed by Sam Levinson. It is beautifully shot. The problems with the film lie in the writing — it’s logorrheic and forced. Zendaya and Washington do their best with some stilted dialogue. It’s obvious that Malcolm — a writer-director — is a stand-in for Levinson. Throughout the film, Malcolm passionately derides critics, going on almost unhinged rants and even railing against a positive review. Malcolm is as pretentious and ridiculous as he is thin-skinned, and he says plenty of pretentious, ridiculous things. It’s unclear if Levinson understands just how pretentious and ridiculous Malcolm is, though. I don’t think he understands how abusive he is either. Levinson identifies with Malcolm too much to dissect him and examine the damage he is wreaking. Even so, it made me uncomfortable watching a Black man perform and provide the cover of distance for Levinson’s neuroses. In addition, the dynamics that might inform a turbulent relationship between a dark-skinned Black man and a light-skinned Black woman are, unsurprisingly, entirely missing.
Malcolm & Marie plays as a series of justifications for what I assume Levinson believes are unfair characterizations of him and his work. I get the distinct impression that some of Marie’s words have been leveled at him directly, and he used the same deflections and manipulations Malcolm employs. The film pretends to wrestle with the pain and have something profound to say about it. It doesn’t. Malcolm & Marie is a simulacrum of self-awareness that is beautifully gift-wrapped but is offered with the same petulance and deception Malcolm displays.
As Malcolm gaslights Marie, the film gaslights the audience into thinking what they’re watching has romantic underpinnings. There is something deeply manipulative at work that we were introduced to with the marketing materials. There was no reason to put that gloss on top of things. Or perhaps it wasn’t a gloss. Perhaps the people involved can’t see that the “positive” moments — the covering up, the brushing off, the jokes, the weaponized nostalgia, the pretending, the normalization — are part of the abuse and are absolutely essential to keeping these kinds of relationships going. Perhaps they can’t even see that the relationship is abusive.
Malcolm & Marie is also a tragedy. At the end of the film, Malcolm wakes up, and Marie is gone. I had a brief hope that she’d been able to break her attachment to him and escape, but there she was, outside the bedroom window, trapped in a frame within a frame as Malcolm approached. It’s a beautiful shot that, like the film, masks the abuse and trauma at work.