“It’s a robustly made – and often superbly entertaining – movie. And at its best, it’s just glorious nonsense.”
by Ken Bakely
You have to stick with James Wan’s Malignant. It builds slowly, shifts focus numerous times within, and is backloaded – and on all these accounts, occasionally a little too much for its own good – but once you allow it to wash over you, there’s a truly uncompromised and frantically fascinating film awaiting. It becomes the kind of sheer chaos that you could hardly have anticipated from the film’s opening, but is so confidently imagined that by the end, you can’t imagine it ever going any other way. The film follows Madison (Annabelle Wallis), a woman who is hospitalized after a mysterious – possibly nonhuman – force of extreme strength enters her home one night, killing her abusive husband, Derek (Jake Abel) and also attacking her, causing her to suffer a miscarriage. She and her sister, Sydney (Maddie Lake) try to understand what happened as the case is investigated by two police detectives (George Young and Michole Briana White). But it’s only the beginning of these bizarre, violent events: Madison begins suffering sudden blackouts, during which she has intense visions of horrific murders perpetrated by this same force, brutally mangling a string of victims. When she awakes, she learns that they have actually occurred exactly as she saw them.
The answer to what all of this could possibly mean does eventually come, but only after an increasingly (and purposefully) baffling journey through an increasingly (and purposefully) convoluted plot. Malignant thrives because it’s clear how much enjoyment Wan is getting out of executing this mayhem, through both his stylish direction and unhinged script, which he co-wrote with Akela Cooper and Ingrid Bisu. In the lead role, Annabelle Wallis takes a measured approach to her turn as Madison; she keeps an even-hand as she leads the viewer through a parade of absurdity, but dutifully commits to the material, now matter how much mayhem she’s juggling by the film’s end. After all, this isn’t the kind of movie that benefits from careful suggestion: it’s all about selling each moment as audaciously as possible. Michael Burgess’ cinematography careens between extremes, with versatile adaptations in movement and color to match the roving horrors of the film itself, which can live anywhere from fleeting, supernatural jump scares to deep wells of blood and gore, sometimes within the same scene.
And yet, it is because of – not despite – the messy complications the film explores that I say it’s probably best to just go with the flow. Wan knows what he wants to achieve, in the sense that it’s clear that Malignant’s the kind of go-for-broke experience that could only come from a director with the experience and understanding of filmmaking’s rhythms to both use and toy with them so deliberately. Whether it’s possible to fully articulate, only in words, what these goals are is another matter altogether, and yes, exactly what watching all of this leaves you feeling is another one still. It could be easy to become lost in a film that moves with such whirlwind fury and seemingly reckless abandon. To discuss the film’s biggest plot twist in the third act out loud is to probably fight back laughter while you’re doing it – worse still if you try to make any sense out of the matter, in which an admittedly flimsy plot starts to collapse entirely. But Malignant is such a carefully overwhelming experience – never taking a leap without at least a sense of where it might be headed in its flight – that it avoids the biggest pitfalls of its loaded premise and comes away with its finest attributes front and center. It’s a robustly made – and often superbly entertaining – movie. And at its best, it’s just glorious nonsense.