Film

Review: Set in March 2020, Locked Down Is Life in a Pandemic with a Witty Script

I’m sure we’ll get a slow but steady stream of films shot during the pandemic that actually embrace the visuals of the event, like Zoom calls, interiors with a small number of people, or exteriors with slightly larger groups, all masked. It remains to be seen how these films will go over with audiences who are well beyond the point of exhaustion over the current restrictions and social limitations, not to mention the exceedingly high number of deaths around the globe, but I for one am curious how the filmmaking world will handle the pandemic, both from the intimate repercussions to the global catastrophe angles. Director Doug Liman (Edge of Tomorrow; Mr. & Mrs. Smith; The Bourne Identity) has now given us Locked Down about a couple living in London, on the verge of breaking up permanently, who decide to pull off a jewelry heist at a department store that is moving its inventory into storage.

Locked Down

Image courtesy of HBO Max

Working from a zippy screenplay by the great writer Steven Knight (Locke; 2019’s insane Serenity), Locked Down sets up its central couple quite nicely. Linda (Anne Hathaway) works for a big Chicago-based company somehow involved in retail and has been put in charge of firing employees whose jobs are lost because of the pandemic (or so they’re told). Since the film is actually set in March 2020, the longevity and true consequences of the health crisis are just beginning to take hold. Jokes about baking bread and toilet paper shortages are still in fashion, and Linda only dresses and dolls herself up from the waist up for her meetings, with pajama bottoms happening just off camera. She hates her job and her boss (Ben Stiller), and every time she’s about to quit, she gets promoted.

Her partner, Paxton (Chiwetel Ejiofor), has been furloughed from his delivery driver job and is feeling quite unworthy and unhappy with his life, especially since the couple has been in clear trouble since around Christmas of the previous year. They were days away from splitting up when the lockdown began, forcing them to stay in the same living space with the uncomfortable knowledge that their end was on hold for two weeks. Before we get anywhere near the heist portion of the proceedings, the first hour or so of Locked Down is a nasty and very funny dark comedy about the unusual circumstances that trap the two together and how they cope (or don’t cope) with them. I’ve seen Hathaway pull off similar tones before, but Ejiofor was a genuine surprise here, showing venomous comedic chops, vulnerability and a sorrowful core that leads to some inspired moments, ranging from him walking the streets reading poems aloud to his neighbors to his licking poppy plants in his back yard, hoping to get a low-grade high and sleep for the first time in days (he succeeds!).

The first half of the film is mostly a pure character study using the pandemic as a backdrop, but eventually their separate lives are forced back together when her company assigns her the task of overseeing the emptying of certain valuables from Harrods, including a diamond worth millions that has been sold to an undesirable type who doesn’t even care about owning it—he just wants the world to know he bought it. It just so happens that there’s a fake of the said diamond and switching the two is deceptively simple, with a low risk of anyone ever finding out. The best part of the idea is that they haven’t actually committed a crime until the deed is already done, so it’s easy enough to abort the mission with no one being the wiser. It just so happens that Paxton’s boss (a hilarious Ben Kingsley, who doesn’t quite get how Zoom works, so we only see the top half of his head every time they speak) plans to rehire him for special deliveries if he agrees to use a false identity. The backstory about Paxton having a criminal record, which is why he needs a new identity for high-security jobs, seems a bit convoluted, but it results in some very silly humor later in the film.

The film’s emotional apex isn’t anywhere near the end of the movie; it occurs as the couple are essentially talking themselves into or out of the crime they are contemplating. The dialogue is rapid fire and Hathaway in particular is impressive zigging and zagging her way through the moment and the thought process she’s going through in real time. She goes from eager to do the deed and stick it to both her company and the diamond’s notorious unnamed buyer to acting like she has no idea what her partner is talking about when he finally agrees to the deed. It feels like an exchange that could be taught in acting class, and Knight’s writing is perfection in the moment.

Other scenes in Locked Down don’t feel quite as natural or clever, however. Paxton’s existential crisis feels a bit forced, especially so early in quarantine (and yes, I understand that his anxiety is more about the breakup he doesn’t want than any health crisis). Both characters take turns being borderline insufferable and cruel, and while that can be fun in small doses, it becomes tough to handle at times. Other brief appearances by the likes of Dulé Hill, Stephen Merchant, Mindy Kaling, and Lucy Boynton are fun, but also feel like attempts to make the film feel bigger than it is or needs to be.

The extended sequence in Harrods is something special. To see a place that vast and impressive just so deserted is indicative of the world we live in, but it sets the stage for some great antics from Linda and Paxton. Liman seems to truly come alive once the film leaves the confines of the dwelling, and while the heist portion of the movie is a bit anticlimactic (by design—they are trying not to stand out, after all), it doesn’t make the film any less exciting. I think the same can be said for the film as a whole. The scale is small, but the energy is crackling, keeping me engaged and entertained throughout, despite some shortcomings. I’m curious to see how the film feels to us in five years. Will we get nostalgic or shiver in remembering such a dark time in world history? Either way, this is a movie of the moment and can be enjoyed as such.

The film is streaming on HBO Max.

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