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The Quarantine Movie Genre Is Young, but ‘Locked Down’ Is Already Subverting It

The HBO Max film starring Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor is both poignantly of its time and delightfully escapist

HBO Max/Ringer illustration

The last big Hollywood blockbuster to be released before the rules of film production, distribution, and exhibition were rewritten was Sonic the Hedgehog. Almost one year later, Locked Down—written, shot, and edited during quarantine and set in a COVID-wracked London—opens with a shot of a stoned hedgehog, loping down a set of stairs after licking opium from some poppies growing undetected in a suburban garden. This, I would say, is progress. As an emblem of a movie about burrowed-in characters desperate to cut loose and experience some kind of high, the little critter has its own loopy logic, and if you can get on that wavelength, Locked Down offers up its share of bizarre, unpredictable delights. Whatever else you can say about Doug Liman’s exercise in off-the-grid moviemaking, give it this: It’s not derivative of anything.

Singularity was also the selling point of Serenity, the last film scripted by Steven Knight, which you may recall was 2019’s WTF Movie of the Year—a bizarro neo-noir starring Matthew McConaughey as a raffish fisherman locked in eternal combat with a tuna called Justice. The twist was that nothing in the movie—McConaughey, the fish, the island location, Anne Hathaway as a dangerous lady, Jeremy Strong as a bookish efficiency expert—was real: the hothouse melodrama (including those McConaughey ass shots) was all part of a video-game simulation created by an abused child trying to communicate with his dead dad. If Knight, who also wrote David Cronenberg’s excellent Russian mob drama Eastern Promises, is one of the most uneven screenwriters of his era, it’s because of how his old-fashioned workmanship clashes with an eccentricity that’s out of step with focus-grouped, franchise-era filmmaking.

There’s a difference between ideas and intellectual property, and Knight is interested in the former. Serenity is deeply silly, but it’s not the sort of movie that exists to meet pre-existing demand; if anything, it represents an attempt to satirize assembly-line, box-ticking genre filmmaking. There’s also a difference between good ideas and bad ideas, and when Knight has a good one, like in his previous directorial effort Locke, the same commitment to the bit that made Serenity ridiculous becomes exhilarating.

Locked Down exists on the same conceptual continuum as Serenity and Locke, both of which played with the theme of isolation and claustrophobia, whether by shrinking the entire universe to the interior of a car or creating a lush, virtual world to allegorize a shut-in reality. Here, the pandemic provides its own context: one of the first shots of the movie is Anne Hathaway screaming into a pillow before rolling over to take a video call on her laptop. Her character, Linda, works for a high-end media relations company and hates her job, as well as everything else about the year 2020. She’d been planning to leave her partner, Paxton (Chiwetel Ejiofor), since the previous Christmas and is now stuck sheltering in place amid the ruins of a relationship that’s run its course.

The physical and emotional choreography of two tetchy, temperamental people trying to occupy the same, contested space may strike some viewers as too relatable right now. In this sense, Locked Down is the opposite of escapist entertainment. Knight and Liman have given themselves a riskier mandate, though, than simply reflecting contemporary misery. After establishing itself as a study of lovers under duress—exactly the kind of movie you’d expect a small crew to craft while working under a set of restrictions—Locked Down reroutes, improbably and rousingly, into a kind of heist thriller, complete with a priceless diamond, a ticking-clock deadline and unspoken allusions to Hathaway’s role in Ocean’s 8.

The way that Liman negotiates his film’s shift from stir-craziness to genre-movie suspense is what makes Locked Down so fascinating, both in comparison to other movies made during and about quarantine and his own directorial track record. Between the Bourne series and Edge of Tomorrow, Liman is a big-canvas filmmaker who stays rooted to genre tropes and imagery. The last time he made something small scale, it featured a pair of snipers staring each other down in the Middle East; the last time he made a movie explicitly about the compromises and contingencies of marriage, it had Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie doing flips and firing semiautomatic weapons at hordes of faceless henchmen.

Locked Down’s screwball-style comedy represents a changeup of Liman’s style, and to the director’s credit, he keeps things mostly in the strike zone. The film’s early Skype-heavy scenes suggest something similar to Rob Savage’s Host, a niftily engineered thriller about a Zoom seance shot and released during 2020 that trapped the viewer in the same desktop aesthetic as Unfriended. Liman, though, keeps widening our field of view away from Paxton and Linda’s flat, gradually filling in a portrait of a paralyzed, eerily depopulated metropolis. Some key scenes are set at Harrods, reduced here to a cavernous, luxury-class wasteland filled with designer items but very few people; the interior landscape functions similarly to the Queen Mary II cruise ship backdrop in Steven Soderbergh’s recent Let Them All Talk, mixing brazen product placement with a wry late capitalist critique.

Let Them All Talk featured almost entirely improvised dialogue by its cast of award-winning actresses, and as a result it felt loose and spontaneous—a movie being made on the fly. Knight, though, is a capital-W Writer who loves rhetorical devices and literary allusions, like having a character learn that the false identity he’s been given in order to pull off a low-level scam is “Edgar Allan Poe.” The joke, and it’s a good (if classist) one, is that most of the people who encounter him under this alias don’t recognize the name of one of the greatest writers of all time. Knight is a fiend for metaphors, and he’s given Paxton a very symbolic motorcycle that represents his freewheeling, bat-out-of-hell youth; as the movie opens, he’s on the verge of selling it. Paxton is depressed: one minute, he’s grandiloquently reciting poetry in the middle of the street to entertain his shut-in neighbors; the next, he’s sneaking off to the garage to stick a hose in the exhaust pipe of his chopper for what he assures Linda is only a satirically suicidal selfie.

Ejiofor is one of the most gifted actors around, but he’s never had a part quite like this. Paxton is a guy who acts larger than life about his own diminished capacities, operating on a razor’s edge between self-aggrandizement and self-harm. The key to his performance is that while it’s clear at all times why Linda—or anybody—would want to get the hell away from him, he’s also so romantically alienated that we want her to at least say something to him. Hathaway’s reaction shots are master classes in exasperation balanced with empathy, and Linda’s own set of neurotic tics let the actress display the screwball vulnerability that’s always been her best quality. In order for the movie to work, we have to want Paxton and Linda to get back together despite the fact that they’re not actually apart, which gives Locked Down its own unique—and very topical—spin on the comedy-of-remarriage genre in which bickering and recrimination are preludes to reconciliation. For all its digital textures and movie-of-the-moment details, Liman and Knight’s creation benefits from feeling old-fashioned at its core.

To say that not everything works in Locked Down is an understatement. Its focus on the frustrations of prosperous, attractive characters in the midst of a global pandemic feels at odds with its subversive political subtext, and the flowery, hyperarticulate theatricality of the dialogue frequently strains credibility. The narrative contrivances that get Paxton and Linda to Harrods for the final set piece are so forced that they could almost be a commentary on contrivance itself, if not for Liman’s insistence in the home stretch on real-time realism.

But there are plenty of boring movies that hold together, and something to be said for ones that threaten to fly apart at the seams. Locked Down runs a long 118 minutes, but they’re chock-full of stuff: breakdowns; revelations; Robin Hood–style thievery; Ben Kingsley swearing up a storm in between homilies as a God-fearing delivery-truck magnate; Hathaway rocking out to Adam Ant in her pajamas; Ben Stiller getting owned on a video call by his teenage son in the background; cameos by cast members from both the U.K. and U.S. versions of The Office; an end-credits scene of somebody baking bread from scratch; and that stoned hedgehog. It’s not just that the non sequiturs are pleasurable but that there’s pleasure in having so many of them in the first place. “I have great faith in fools,” Edgar Allan Poe once wrote. “Self-confidence, my friends will call it.” It’d be nice if movies had more of that.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.