The Early-Pandemic Heist Thriller That No One Asked For
Doug Liman has never shied away from big challenges. He’s directed genuinely great films such as Swingers, Go, and Edge of Tomorrow; he launched the Jason Bourne franchise; and he once re-edited and re-released his little-seen flop Fair Game mostly for fun. For his next project, he’ll literally travel to space alongside Tom Cruise to film in orbit. So it’s no wonder that, a few months into the coronavirus pandemic, he decided to make a movie set in quarantine—one of the first in what will surely be a long line of major Hollywood efforts to wrestle with the anxious realities of the current era.
Locked Down, which is now available to stream on HBO Max, was written, shot, and edited in a four-month window: a dramatically quick turnaround given the usual leisurely pace of big-budget moviemaking. Written by Steven Knight and starring Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor, it uses the pandemic as a backdrop for a heist thriller, in which a married couple in London take advantage of quarantine to steal precious jewels from the opulent British department store Harrods. While Locked Down is an undoubtedly fascinating pop-culture curio, it’s also sloppy and cringe-inducing, and feels like it was made in a hurry.
In the past, Liman has benefited from freneticism: I maintain that the jangly, often hilarious Edge of Tomorrow is one of the century’s best blockbusters. But Locked Down has the air of a homework assignment completed the morning it was due. Knight, an Oscar-nominated screenwriter and the auteur behind the baffling Serenity, seems to have been tasked with writing something—anything—that reflected this peculiar moment. But for all its topicality, the movie feels quaint and dated, taking place in the early weeks of quarantine when the idea of staying inside and getting your groceries delivered was still a novelty. The true suspense comes from the viewer’s knowledge of how much longer the situation will drag on, but instead of exploring that cruel irony, the film focuses on its central couple’s preexisting anxieties.
If Locked Down more fully embraced a genre—outright comedy, heist thriller, or even scathing social satire—it might work better. Instead, it’s an indecisive mess. The first half introduces the insufferable couple at the film’s core: truck-driving courier Paxton (Ejiofor), who’s frustrated by his dead-end career, and corporate honcho Linda (Hathaway), who’s disenchanted with the soullessness of her work. Their partnership was once more exciting and rebellious. Now they just stomp around their lovely London home (with a charming backyard!) and huff and puff at each other.
“You are unhappy in an outwardly happy, ‘Let’s pretend it’s all fine’ female way, and I am unhappy in an obviously thwarted, unfulfilled, castrated-male way!” yells Paxton at one point. (I told you—he’s nonsensically grumpy.) Knight’s concept, of course, is that lockdown has exacerbated Paxton and Linda’s marital tensions. But given that the film is set in April 2020, only a few weeks into quarantine, and that their house is a lot nicer than most, I found it difficult to sympathize. Just wait until you’ve endured months of this, I kept thinking.
My favorite moments were those that felt distinct enough to place in a time capsule. Early on, Paxton runs out into the street in the evening, right as everyone begins a charming ritual—banging pots and pans together in celebration of health-care workers. At one point, Paxton hands a package to a co-worker with an exaggerated outstretched arm and backward lean to maintain a six-foot distance; at another, he forgets to grab his mask as he leaves to stand in line at the grocery store. Liman renders those little details with appropriate surrealism and humor. If nothing else, Locked Down is a cute snapshot of an age that already feels bygone.
But movies are usually supposed to have functional plots too, and clever details can’t make up for characters without clear motives. The Harrods heist showcases the visual opulence of the London department store (which had never allowed filming inside its walls before)—but I never quite understood why this couple, with their fancy home, needed to risk it all for jewels worth a few million pounds. What’s really at stake is the survival of Paxton and Linda’s relationship, which Ejiofor and Hathaway gamely try to underline by delivering their angry monologues at the highest volume. It should be so easy to relate; who hasn’t felt extra frayed throughout this past year? Yet given the film’s early-pandemic setting, the primary emotion Locked Down provoked in me was exhaustion. As if I needed any more of that.