‘Locked Down’ Proves Not Even a Hollywood Heist Can Make the Pandemic Fun
We’re desperate for content about the pandemic that is not only about the pandemic, but something more creative. That should’ve been “Locked Down.” What a bummer that it’s not.
The joke’s on me for thinking someone was going to make the pandemic fun.
Not that it has been fun, and not even that it should be. But the last months of watching the morose, superficial, and, most often, aggrieved regurgitations of life in the early days of quarantine have been such an uninsightful slog that the lively and slick trailer for the new film Locked Down was like a beacon of hope for COVID content to come.
This wasn’t going to be, it seemed, yet another insufferable spelunking of the harrowing early days of the pandemic, when precautions, quarantines, and the stress was an unfamiliar shock. No, this was going to be a movie about a couple staging a heist at the Harrods department store that took place while the rest of the world was in lockdown. Mr. and Mrs. Smith: Coronavirus Edition. How cheeky! How refreshing! How positively Hollywood!
There was no expectation for the film, starring Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor and filmed over 18 days in September in London, to be a masterpiece reflecting back the experience of this past year in a seminal, profound way. It just looked fun.
Instead of just re-dramatizing the discord and anxiety experienced in the beginning of quarantine, it was going to use the circumstances of lockdown as the catalyst for an outlandish Hollywood caper. Two hot actors stage a heist! Whee! We need this!
Imagine the disappointment, then, to have watched Locked Down and find that it thwarted all potential for ushering us into a next stage of pandemic art. It’s a quarantine movie just like every other quarantine show we’ve watched and groaned over—until it all-too-briefly isn’t.
It’s so preoccupied with moralizing about the psychological effects of the early days of isolation and so pleased with its still-too-soon analysis of how we processed it that it practically ignores the only plot element that makes it interesting. It’s a heist movie that treats its heist like an afterthought.
Locked Down launches by imprisoning viewers in the emotional claustrophobia of the London townhome shared by Linda (Hathaway) and Paxton (Ejiofor), a couple that had been on the verge of breaking up right before the city’s first lockdown forced them into begrudged confinement together—“the things we said echoing around the house like fucking bells ringing,” Paxton tells his brother (Dulé Hill) on a Zoom call.
No TV show or movie has managed to reflect back the misery of the beginning of quarantine in any gratifying or perceptive way. Now, all these months later and still staring down the barrel of more time trapped to come, the anxieties and malaise of anyone griping about life in March and April 2020 seems trite. So consider it a misfire, then, that Locked Down begins by doubling down on that misery.
The film is, in fact, obsessed with it, this idea that these two humans are so put upon by the limits of their house arrest that we would have any empathy for their situation—as if their frustrations and bristling against each other and constant need to talk, talk, talk, and then talk some more about it is in any way unique, novel, or interesting.
They’re both destructively navel-gazing. Linda is a corporate rising star who laments losing herself to capitalist douchebaggery. Paxton feels perennially unworthy, stalked by the shadow of a violent crime he committed a decade prior and unable to find any career besides driving a van. Their respective crises are magnified by the actual most heightened circumstances of our lifetime, and their breakdowns crash and clash against each other on their respective downward spirals.
This plays out in Zoom calls and FaceTimes and Skype sessions with coworkers, friends, and families. They take out their stress by succumbing to old vices—drinking, smoking, drugs—and violently banging pots together during the 7 p.m. ovation for health workers like it’s a tribal cleansing ritual.
There are tense conversations about grocery shopping and face coverings, and teleconference snafus. And, for all of these irritatingly tedious retreads of spring’s most numbing pandemic chores, there is barely a glance at the severe reality of the virus, its dangers, or casualties—other than these characters bitching about their cooped-up lots in life.
This portion of the film inexplicably draws on and on, laying down a maze of biography and past shared history between the couple that is ultimately too inconsequential to bother recounting here. Perhaps the presumption was that knowing more about their emotionally dire straits would better explain their wild decision to pilfer a $3 million diamond from a high-security department store. But considering how contrived and implausible the various logistics of the heist ends up being, there’s no justifying the hour-plus of throat-clearing before the action kicks in.
It’s disappointing because the film does get fun. It just takes forever to get there.
Paxton gets a job transporting valuables from a handful of department stores while the city is shut down. One of those gigs is transporting jewels that had been stored at Harrods in anticipation of a showcase that was canceled because of the pandemic. It just so happens that the company Linda is CEO of was staging that showcase, and she had been charged with seeing to the gems’ safe transport.
With Paxton desperately in need of the job and Linda both not wanting him to get caught and also a bit desperate to loosen up her corporate necktie and rebel, they make a plan to make off with the prize diamond themselves.
It’s a silly plan, made sillier by the utter seriousness with which the film treats its hatching.
There’s a world in which that seriousness works to the film’s advantage, with moments veering towards camp in the most deliriously enjoyable way that Hollywood thrillers do. Give credit to Hathaway and Ejiofor in these moments. They’re selling the hell out of their often pretentious, preachy material. Hathaway has a cigarette-puffing, woman-on-the-verge rant, complete with “this woman is unhinged” electric-shocked hair, delivered flawlessly. In that moment the film comes alive.
You might even suspect director Doug Liman and screenwriter Steven Knight are cleverly playing with cinematic tropes against the backdrop of the pandemic, finally finding a way to use the heinous act of God as a storytelling tool and not just a giant creative bummer. You would be wrong.
And that’s the marvel of Locked Down.
This is the first film to ever shoot in London’s landmark Harrods store. It was only able to do so because of COVID restrictions shutting down the store. It was filmed at a sprint—just 18 days, unheard of for a caper like this—because of concerns that the pandemic would get worse the longer filming continued.
It is unconventional filmmaking at an unconventional time. And yet, gauging by how fastidiously the bulk of it adheres to the same script as the dozens of TV series and movies we have already seen produced during quarantine, it is woefully conventional in its approach to the pandemic. That is an absurd takeaway for a film that is, again, about burgling a $3 million diamond from a department store during the coronavirus lockdown.
Is it bad-bad or fun-bad? That will depend on your tolerance for pandemic whining. (There is so much of it.) That will depend on how strong of a spell Hathaway and Ejiofor’s irresistible charismas have on you. (They are epically charismatic here, in spite of everything.) That will depend on how willing you are to finally enjoy quarantine content that you’ll rule Locked Down as an energetic lark, not an elitist personal essay on COVID capitalist ennui hidden inside a rom-com thriller. (Imagine how much fun this premise could have been.)
Gauging by critics’ reactions and audiences’ overwhelming distaste for quarantine content thus far, there is no doubt that there is a desire for a “phase two” of sorts. For projects that are not flatly about the pandemic—a surface exploration that is already tired—but which use the extreme situation as a springboard for something bigger, adding a layer of storytelling and creativity to it.
Locked Down is arguably a swing at that. (Again: heist!) And there is a lot of buzz circling Malcolm and Marie, the Zendaya-starring romantic drama that was shot in quarantine. Perhaps we’re on the path towards figuring out this very modern storytelling conundrum: how to make something set during the pandemic that is not annoying as hell.