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As is typical with life-changing global events, the movie world has not wasted any time analyzing life during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a shared traumatic experience that has touched us all in one way or another, and like any artists filmmakers have taken the opportunity to use their craft to reach a better understanding of humanity in the moment. An unfortunate side effect of this process is that we’re going to see a fair amount of exploitative trash, but balancing that material out we will get works that are both insightful and entertaining.
Doug Liman’s Locked Down is a film of the latter variety, and quite a fantastic one at that. Based on an original screenplay by Steven Knight, it’s a genre movie that tries to wear a lot of hats – including pitch black comedy, romantic drama, and heist thriller – and not only pulls all of them off, but pairs them with a stylish matching mask. Though it doesn’t have the benefit of great hindsight on 2020 (it was shot in the span of a few weeks this past fall), it’s impressive how it taps into the exact formula of equal parts nihilism and optimism in the attitude of the moment, and it’s brought to life by two incredible performances from Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor that are both hilarious and emotional.
Set in London during the early weeks of the pandemic, Locked Down centers on Linda (Hathaway) and Paxton (Ejiofor), a couple that can no longer be called a couple because they have made the decision to break up… a decision made particularly problematic as a result of the fact that they live together and can’t go anywhere. Their cohabitation results in constantly escalating friction, made only worse by their very different professional situations. Paxton, an ex-con who has spent years getting his life on the straight and narrow, is furloughed from his work as a truck driver and is launched into an abyss-like depression. Linda, meanwhile, can’t seem to do anything but succeed as an executive at the soul-sucking corporate job that she hates. They are both completely miserable, but can’t even function well enough to commiserate with one another.
Then, by some grace of the universe, the stars align. As a result of being short drivers without a criminal record, Paxton’s boss (Ben Kingsley) creates fake IDs for him so that he can be brought in for a series of lax security transport runs, with the last being from the famed posh department store Harrods. Linda, meanwhile, is given the responsibility to oversee pandemic-related transactions from her company, including the sale of the Harris Diamond, a stone valued at £3 million… which just so happens to be stored at Harrods.
Without lifting a finger, the protagonists find themselves with the opportunity to pull off what may be the world’s simplest heist – but the lingering question is whether or not they can actually go through with it.
Locked Down goes to some dark places, but it’s super funny throughout.
Doug Liman and Steven Knight make an interesting pair as eclectic director working with an experimental writer, but their styles click in the best way, and while Locked Down is a film that runs the gamut in terms of emotional response it’s best quality is how hilarious it is – particularly when it’s going to some weird and dark places. Paxton’s wit is what saves him from total desolate despair, unleashing drama-filled rants during catch-up video calls with his half-brother (Dule Hill), and Linda’s expressions are priceless as she exasperatingly deals with her totally out of touch boss (Ben Stiller).
It has great boiling-over energy in the main relationship that provides a kind of brilliant awkward funny, and peppers in all kinds of odd and fantastic details (such as Paxton being given the fake name Edgar Allan Poe and being repeatedly surprised when nobody knows who that is).It’s sensibilities could be described as manic – which most certainly is fitting with the overall experience of this past year.
Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor are fantastic together.
Thanks to the convenience of video conferencing, Locked Down sports an ensemble cast packed with talent (I’ve purposefully kept some names out of this review to maintain surprises), but it’s truly Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s show, and both carry the day. Linda and Paxton are not easy characters to play, as in the wrong hands their anxiety, self-loathing, and mutual hostility could be sincerely off-putting, but the actors’ awesome charisma and perfect timing in their banter instead make them both engaging and even empathetic. Over the course of the film you get to appreciate them in all varieties of their dynamic – alone, at each other’s throats, remembering the good times, and working as a team – and each step of the way you appreciate what’s unique and what’s utterly real about them during a very strange moment in all of our lives.
In its own way, Locked Down is an impressive cinematic feat.
Equally impressive in it all is also just the impressive craftwork and logistics that brought Locked Down to life. It’s admittedly not exactly scaled like a big blockbuster, and the vast majority of the action takes place within Paxton and Linda’s home, but when you take a step back from it you can marvel at the accomplishment. This is a film that came together with a star-studded cast from first draft to final cut in less than a year, and while doing so it not only manages to capture the chaotic state of affairs, but never feel cheap, or rushed, or undercooked. In spirit it feels like a full-on Hollywood heist movie inspired by unforeseen global events, replete with a big showy third act at a landmark location (albeit without the genre’s most useless tropes). Even though it’s a heightened story, future films trying to capture the moment, even with the benefit of hindsight, will probably struggle to achieve the level of veritas.
It’s all but guaranteed that the next decade is going to feature all varieties of stories set during the COVID-19 pandemic, and what’s perhaps most exciting about Locked Down is the very real potential for quality in that approach. Sometimes limitations and constrictions – like stay-at-home orders and mandated social distancing – can breed wonderful creativity, and with its fun take on multiple genres that excises cliché, the film is bursting with it, and it’s brought home by a pair of amazing performances and smart style.