Credit: Warner Bros.
by Zachary Goldkind Film

Best Films of 2021: Malignant

January 8, 2022

#22. James Wan’s 40-million-dollar check, signed and sealed by a grateful Warner Bros. in recompense for the success of Aquaman, enables a continuation of his foray through what others have labeled a filmography of “fun-houses,” geographical reimaginings that seek not so much to spook, but rather to conceive: to dream beautiful nightmares, and to configure labyrinthine narratives as unwieldy as the camera itself. Merrily along for this unhinged excursion is actor Ingrid Bisu, Wan’s partner who devised the story/concept for the film, and cinematographer Michael Burgess, whose father, Don, shot Wan’s Aquaman and The Conjuring 2 (not to mention a plethora of other popular titles). It’s a close-knit group of artists who have come together in celebration of unearthly perversion. With a plot that scorns stagnation and requires a collection of credited body contortionists, Malignant contributes — to this hellfire year that is 2021 — a vivacious circus of psychophysiological entrapment, where death is as close a bond as the blood between family. That is, after all, what the film seeks as its thesis: the discernment of blood and what meaning it can hold, and if blood and family are, in fact, synonymous. But according to Wan’s guiding hand, the film wears these themes like a slogan printed upon white T — this is not cerebral filmmaking, but more simply a reappropriation of didactic blockbuster aesthetics. Malignant employs that artificial sheen that viewers know all too well, and seeks to infuse it with an earnestness that is only ever witnessed anymore in the likes of a very few American auteurs.

Gabriel is the film’s beast, a now Twitter-famous meme-ified sentience burrowed into the cognition of our protagonist, Madison. Gabriel’s fleshy presence recalls the physical transmogrifications of the ghouls in a Fulci film, Giallo cinema being Wan’s primary basket of influence. While the brash color temperatures are not hyper-present, during scenes in which our baleful menace makes rampage, stark red and blue flood the tableaux, along with enough mist to make Kaminski proud. Burgess’ camera soars above and through architecture, gliding across rooms in a display of kinetics to match the unbridled spectacle of bloody violence that Wan choreographs courtesy of the hands of Gabriel, whether it be a single murder by way of excavated intestines or a full-throttled massacre through a police precinct. Wan and co. only hope that the vibrancy of this formal demonstration is enough to engage with on a denominator of fun, and yet there still is so much more meat on this bone; its delicacy is found in its scrupulous filmmaking and a certain narrative fluidity wherein fever-dream logic crisscrosses the melodramatic, punctuated, quite aptly, by a nu metal instrumental cover of the Pixies’ Where is My Mind? In this way, Malignant is the year’s most appreciable work of sentimental bombast, achieving a tenor the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Wachowskis’ went full space opera half a decade back.