Review: Words are weapons in combative, combustible 'Malcolm & Marie'

John David Washington and Zendaya fight all night in Sam Levinson's talky and gripping relationship drama

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

It's the biggest night of Malcolm's life. He's just premiered his new movie to a rapturous audience and he's buzzing off the reaction. There's just one problem: while introducing the film, he forgot to thank his girlfriend, Marie. And they're about to get in a fight about it that will last all night. 

That's the set-up for the simple, talky and tightly wound "Malcolm & Marie," a volatile word marathon that explores modern relationships, the insularity of Hollywood and the way fights between couples can quickly escalate into an arms race. It can be alternately engaging and exasperating, but its two leads turn it into a fireworks-filled showcase of their talents. Love it or hate it, its performances are outstanding. 

Zendaya and John David Washington in "Malcolm and Marie."

Those performances come from John David Washington and Zendaya, the only two people seen on screen in this black-and-white, single location drama, filmed during the pandemic under strict COVID protocols.

Washington is Malcolm, Zendaya is Marie, and they tell you everything else you need to know as they volley back and forth all night, wielding words like weapons, slicing and dicing like they're circling one another in a knife fight.

They sometimes pull back — Malcolm goes on an extended riff about about movie critics, race and intention that Marie reacts to like she's watching a sitcom — but then they're back at it, the words of writer-director Sam Levinson (the ambitious but wayward "Assassination Nation") landing like grenades at each other's feet. 

It's uncomfortable, suffocating and claustrophobic but hard to turn away from, and Marcell Rév's gorgeous cinematography turns their bitter tension into a slick work of modern art. There's no telling where the couple is headed, although their long-term prospects don't look good. But the chemistry between them is electric enough that if Levinson were to revisit them in 10 years time, "Before Sunset"-style, it would be well worth it to watch them spar again.


'Malcolm & Marie'


Rated R: for pervasive language, and sexual content

Running time: 106 minutes

In theaters, on Netflix beginning Feb. 5