It is no surprise that director Doug Liman would try to make a star-studded heist film at the height of a deadly pandemic. Known for a chaotic directing style he refers to as “Limania,” the filmmaker made headlines last July for his “wild solo flight from Massachusetts to London in a single-engine plane” to shoot a script written by Steven Knight over the course of 18 days. Liman is one of many directors who has chosen to shoot their films with significantly reduced casts and crews, devoting much of the film’s budget to ensuring proper safety precautions amid a global pandemic. The director may have risked his life to keep an at-risk industry alive and provide jobs to industry professionals, but his film “Locked Down,” which premiered exclusively on HBO MAX in January, is a thoroughly uninspired pandemic tale. The film fails as both an escapist relationship drama and as a time capsule of life during the pandemic.
Burdened by the restrictions of the very crisis that inspired its creation, “Locked Down” tries to blend the real-world emotional hardships of quarantine with the heightened stakes of a heist thriller. Linda, played by Anne Hathaway, is a CEO at a multinational fashion company burdened with all of the relatable ordeals of pandemic lockdown. She sits through miserable Zoom calls and engages in feverish arguments with her roommate and estranged partner, Paxton, played by Chiatel Ejiofor. “A complete reexamination of one’s life does seem to be a COVID side effect,” Linda reflects early in the film as the disgruntled couple navigates their own grief and resentment while under lockdown. As they are about to lose their sanity, Linda and Paxton decide to risk everything to steal a three million pound diamond from London’s richest department store. Instead of making bread or taking up knitting, Linda and Paxton decide to channel their existential angst into stealing a diamond.
Liman tries to replicate the general mood of a pandemic lockdown by giving the film a slow and laborious pace, with segments beginning with his two characters waking up in bed and ending with them screaming their heads off. The claustrophobia of their apartment serves less to heighten the underlying tensions of their relationship but instead exposes the limitations of a COVID-19 production. This is particularly surprising from Knight, who, in the past has used claustrophobic settings to express the inner crises of his characters. With the mysterious hotel in “Dirty Pretty Things” (2002), or the BMW where the entirety of “Locke” (2013) takes place, Knight succeeded at showing a character’s interiority instead of having them monologue it. “Locked Down” is the Walmart version of Knight’s screenwriting tenure.
Knight has written his characters as problems instead of people. Their personalities antagonize one another in a never-ending argument that ebbs and flows over the course of the film. Their tirades are so numerous and indistinguishable that they do not seem like the outbursts of actual characters, but generic monologues performed by talented actors. Even the remote possibilities of Zoom as an interesting visual medium are not developed and serve only as another method for complaining.
“Locked Down” may be pioneering a new era of COVID-19 filmmaking, but it refuses to engage with the reality of the pandemic on any interesting level. Knight and Liman reduce the cultural or economic impacts of the crisis to the annoyance of mask-wearing and scenes of people buying more toilet paper than they need, as if the script were pasted from tweets written in March 2020. The pandemic does not even reveal Linda and Paxton’s humanity — it just serves their own selfish interests. They do not steal a priceless jewel because they can no longer afford their expensive London apartment or because they want to financially support the employees Linda fired; they steal a diamond to give their lives “purpose.” The pair may have succeeded in turning off Zoom and living their lives to the fullest, but they are no closer to solving the issues they have been railing against for two hours — corporate greed, government corruption and mass apathy to the death of millions. The film uses the reality of the pandemic to validate the wants and needs of its protagonists, trivializing some of the most difficult issues of our time.