Believe it or not, Locked Down isn’t the first major motion picture to be conceived, filmed, and then released during the pandemic. (The atrocious Michael Bay-produced Songbird holds that dubious honor.) Yet it still might be the first to present itself as a relatable vision of how we’re all living — a quarantine movie about life in quarantine. With that, many of you might already be declaring, “No thanks!” And it’s hard to blame you. It seems inevitable that films would be made about this significant chapter in global history, in part because a small group of people enduring an extended stay in their own homes is a pretty easy and logistically possible to actually shoot right now. But, does it help if it still arrives while we’re all still stuck in this collective rut?
Shot in September, Locked Down is set late last spring, essentially the time when it began to dawn on everyone that this wasn’t going to be over in a mere matter of weeks. We open with someone begrudgingly logging onto a Zoom call, and, if nothing else, Locked Down at least captures all the holes of virtual communication: the buffering, the lagging. You might nod with recognition, but, thankfully, the whole movie isn’t set on that tablet. Long stretches, though, are set in a singular location: the spacious London home of longtime couple, Linda (Anne Hathaway) and Paxton (Chiwetel Ejiofor). She’s a rising executive at a vaguely-defined fashion-related international corporation, wore out by her role as the bearer of bad news to employees being unceremoniously cut loose. He’s a former drug dealer and ex-convict who’s been furloughed from his clean, steady gig as a delivery-truck driver. The two are in the early stages of separating, and each are coping with their isolation in different ways — Linda by day-drinking and chain-smoking, Paxton by sampling the opiates growing in his garden and shoutingly reading the whole block late-night poetry (an idea that the film seems to believe the neighbors would mostly find charming, rather than annoying).
For director Doug Liman, Locked Down is, in some form, a return to the approximations of indie filmmaking after decades working with Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon on big action flicks. He shot this in just eighteen days, the same amount of time it took to make his breakout Swingers. Perhaps Liman feels some self-portrait in Linda and Paxton’s longing for their careless, carefree days as young lovers. But Locked Down seems more plainly to be the voice of screenwriter Steven Knight’s (whose similarly titled Locke was itself an experiment in close-quarters dramatic intimacy). With the film, Knight uses the restrictions of COVID life as an excuse to indulge his appetite for blatantly theatrical conversations. His script unfolds as a string of strained monologues and quips. Everything seems to be a symbol to this writer: a motorcycle, a bandana, a bag of flour, a Christmas decoration. One might kindly call that a symptom of quarantining; stuck looking at the same damn stuff 24/7, it’s hard not to invest them with deeper meaning.
By the time that it sets in that Knight is riffing on being a comedy of remarriage, Locked Down pivots to a shaggy heist-film scenario. The movie’s backstretch unfolds primarily in a half-empty Harrods, the luxury London department store, repurposed here as a massive film set thanks to the significant reduction of foot traffic caused by the pandemic. In some ways, this kind of comes off like cheating your setup, but maybe that just allows the movie to function as wish fulfillment: Who right now wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to leave the house and embark on an unexpected caper? Though it fills its video-chat boxes with famous faces, Locked Down mainly rests on its stars, grappling earnestly with the mouthfuls Knight feeds them. While Ejiofor keeps his cool, this is the Hathaway show, for better or probably worse: She boldly overacts her way through screwball stress, bounding from tipsy soliloquies to embarrassing dances.
Locked Down might, accidentally or not, work as a time capsule of the current irritation. Will future audiences look back on Locked Down and feel some of our pain? I don’t know, but what they won’t get, for all the Zoom gags and insights into the itchy impatience of an interrupted social life, is a sense of how most of us really lived in 2020. Because, though the aim may be to immortalize the present, Knight and Liman look at it through the lens where economic symptoms of COVID are more abstract. After all, this is a movie whose plot hinges, amusingly but kind of snobbishly, on the average person having no idea who Edgar Allen Poe is, and on the truly outrageous notion of a laid-off corporate casualty covering, happily and righteously, for the very middle manager who fired him. Of course, maybe some out-of-touchness isn’t such a bad thing in this case. Cinema doesn’t always have to be an escape, but good luck finding anyone hyped to see their dull day-to-day reenacted by movie stars on webcams. No matter how much Locked Down attempts to grapple with our moment, it still can’t escape from being grating; from all its blatant symbolism, strained monologues, and labored quips.
Locked Down is available to stream on HBO Max