A Netflix Original Picture, Written and Directed by Sam Levinson.
A filmmaker on the brink of Hollywood glory and his girlfriend, whose story made his career, find themselves pushed towards a reckoning as a single tumultuous night decides the fate of their relationship. Shot in one location during the Covid-19 pandemic, the film is written and directed by Euphoria (2019) creator Sam Levinson, and stars John David Washington and Zendaya. It was released at the start of February by Netflix, therefore falling within the newly extended Oscar eligibility window and giving the film and its stars a chance to be late breaking awards contender.
In the couple of weeks following its early February release, the film has already stirred up a huge amount of debate online, with everyone having a varied opinion the film and what it is saying, and if it is a successful way to say it. There have been so many thoughts put across, some really important and well measured, and others not so much, that I don’t feel much great need to enter too much more into that discussion here, as I don’t feel it would be very productive.
Looking at the film itself, I found it to be a real mixed bag, full of some really impressive elements, and also full of some really grating and unnecessary elements too. As a relationship drama it is very interesting, seeing two incredibly attractive and intelligent people go head-to-head and slowly dismantle each other over the course of one toxic night as their relationship issues are laid bare. It really digs deep into both these people and if they are suited for each other, and how they are purposefully hurting each other when they want to. The film is longer than necessary so this does get repetitive as they start to keep having the same argument, with little narrative change, but it is still something engaging, and I think that if all the film had been about was this, and it was more fleshed out but over a shorter running time, then the film could’ve been something really special, because Levinson does have talent.
However, as a commentary on the film industry and on film criticism itself, it falls to the wayside. I don’t say this because I feel personally attacked by what Levinson is saying, because a lot of the points raised are very valid, and a lot of Marie’s (Zendaya) rebuffs of those points are also true too, and Levinson deserves credit for including them. However, my main issue with it is that so many different points are made that the purpose begins to be muddled, and it does start to feel like Levinson is just using Malcolm (John David Washington) to rant about his grudges. There is also the uncomfortable element of a white filmmaker using a Black character as a way for him to express his own opinions about race and authenticity, but there are much more nuanced and appropriate articles and essays that have already been written about this than I can here. Levinson, a young writer with multiple movies, a hit show, and a father who is one of Hollywood’s most famed directors, seems to feel hard done by, especially by critics but also by the industry at large. For all his talk of authenticity, it is this that feels most inauthentic and I wish the focus had stayed more on the compelling relationship at the heart of the film.
On a technical level, this shot in black and white film is gorgeous to look at, with some really inventive and striking cinematography making the absolute most of the single location film and, despite a slight resemblance to a high-end perfume advert, proving to be really impressive. With Malcom’s dance scene here, and the house invasion scene in Assassination Nation (2018), Sam Levinson is proving to have a real talent for compelling long takes shot through a large glass window.
The film only features two actors for its entire runtime, and without them being good, there is simply no chance this film works. John David Washington gets the showiest role as Malcolm, and he hams it up to the max, delivering a really compelling performance. His physical acting is very impressive, and despite struggling to match Zendaya in the key dramatic moments, he is able to thrive in the other scenes due to a really great comedic timing.
As for Zendaya, she is one of Hollywood’s biggest rising stars right now and here she gives her most grown up and mature performance yet. She no longer feels like the teenage girl that we are so used to seeing her as, here she is very much a woman. Marie is tortured, sexy, engaging and full of depth, and Zendaya is able to balance all of those elements perfectly and give a dazzling performance. The mixed reception to the film may hurt her chances, but she would be very valid as a late breaking contender for a best actress nomination.
Overall, this is a film with really impressive parts and some really not, and you have to respect any film that is able to generate this amount of discourse and discussion. All the elements were there for this to be special, but unfortunately it just falls short of that.
Rating = 3/5