Dir. Doug Liman; Anne Hathaway, Chiwetel Ejiofor
[½ out of 4 stars]
On paper, Locked Down (2021) is a no-brainer. The story is about feuding couple Linda (Anne Hathaway) and Paxton (Chiwetel Ejiofor) trapped together during the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown in England, who decide that before they break up and go their separate ways they are going to steal a diamond worth three million pounds. The reasons for the break-up are left generally at ‘they grew apart,’ and the impetus for the heist is broadly ‘I’m bored and want money.’ Starring two Oscar-nominated performers, written by the Oscar-nominated screenwriter Steven Knight who gave us Eastern Promises (2007), and directed by Doug Liman, whose credentials include Swingers (1996), The Bourne Identity (2002), and Edge of Tomorrow (2014), any sane human would be excited. Well, I regretfully must inform you that instead of being anything worth watching, Locked Down is quite simply bad. Not “so bad it’s fun” bad, but rather “why did I just give two hours of my life to this” bad.
How does a promising project end up quite this dreadful? It seems to me that there is blame to go around. Starting from the ground up, Knight’s script does the project no favors. Yes, it is a challenge to write a story that takes place almost entirely in one apartment, limited to two main players who, with the exception of the occasional video or phone call, have no other personalities to play off of. Challenge or not though, there are a multitude of examples where talented writers made it work. Host (2020), which I reviewed last year, is a prime example; the creative team on that project crafted suspense and dramatic stakes with nothing but computer screens. While there is no denying that Knight is a talented writer, in this circumstance he seems simply incapable of rising to the challenge. Instead of crafting a script that examines the finer points of what it might be like to be trapped in an apartment with someone who wants to leave you, Knight seems content to ignore any attempt at subtext and make his script a devout student of poorly-paced melodrama. In one particularly head-scratching moment, Linda reveals that she had a sexual experience with Paxton’s sister-in-law. Yet, the plot point is never developed and seems forgotten, rather like a soap opera twist that the writers decided was not actually worth the trouble. And so, a potentially interesting exploration of repressed sexuality and family dynamics is boiled down to a few lines shouted over Zoom. It is in this mold that any partially compelling development of character or plot in this film is eschewed in favor of topicality and ham-fistedness.
Locked Down overflows with talented actors who, quite literally in the cases of Dulé Hill and Ben Kingsley who appear solely on FaceTime, phone in their performances. Hathaway and Ejiofor, two actors whom I normally enjoy even when they are in bad films, seem desperate to imbue any bit of dynamism into the limp script. Instead of recognizing the ghastly nature of the parts they were stuck in and turning the drivel into campiness or anything else interesting, Ejiofor and Hathaway play it straight. Maybe this is because they are both actors of high pedigree, but so was Alan Rickman in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991) and he managed to turn a similar script into some memorable insanity. But I digress. In Locked Down, Hathaway and Ejiofor end up seeming spastic and inconsistent, trading depth for lots of aggressive movements and untraceable fluctuations in vocal pitch. As a result, the hour-and-a-half of the movie that is dominated by their time in the apartment unfurls as an endless parade of variations of two people yelling at each other in different rooms of the house. They fight about making bread in a bedroom, about smoking cigarettes in Linda’s office, and even about Paxton’s motorcycle in, well, where else, the garage. Even when the two inevitably decide to sleep together one more time, there is zero chemistry between them. In fact, I would argue I’ve seen more chemistry between slices of bread than these two actors. Furthermore, because there has been nothing but cruel insults lobbed at one another before that moment, any reunion or reconciliation, even marked by sexual desperation, is utterly unbelievable. The performances are so poor that I can honestly say the best acting I saw in the movie was from the top half of Kingsley’s face while he portrayed a moving truck company owner who opens every video call with a prayer. He is the sole person in the movie who seems to be having any fun.
It is the final stunner to me that Liman could direct such a visually and narratively underbaked film. There are many things one could say about Liman’s filmography, but boring is a word I would never have imagined ascribing to his work. Yet, that is the nicest adjective I can bestow upon Locked Down. Liman shoots the trudge of apartment scenes in a steady diet of close-ups and medium shots packed into shot-reverse-shot. Why did he choose to only shoot basic masters and never bother to get anything else? Hard to say. Even when we get to the heist in the final 25 minutes of the film and blessedly leave the confines of the apartment, he finds nothing interesting to add visually. At that point, I would have settled for some of his tell-tale handheld camerawork that made Swingers and The Bourne Identity feel so lived in. Or, to take advantage of the winding hallways of Harrods, where Linda and Paxton are stealing their diamond from, he could toss in a more energetic long-take. But no, we carry forth with the same monotony. In the end, Liman achieves nothing more than the same visual language one expects from a bottom-rate Hallmark film, which is to say he does nothing at all to differentiate his filmmaking from that of a camcorder on a stick.
Some poor soul looking for a hot take will no doubt grasp the position that the slog of Locked Down is an intentional way to replicate the feelings of COVID-19 lockdown. To those who might argue such a position, I would remind them that A Man Escaped (1956), Birdman of Alcatraz (1962), and The Shawshank Redemption (1994) capture the essence of confinement while still managing to maintain exceptional levels of artistry and emotional engagement. Apart from the aforementioned top half of Kingsley’s face, the only thing that justifies the existence of this movie is an adorable hedgehog, but of course, we find out in the last scene that the hedgehog has died because Locked Down cannot even let us have that small dose of contentedness. I can honestly say that I enjoyed the feeling of actual early lockdown, when I ran two miles in my tiny apartment and reached the point where I talked to my posters because I was so bored, more than I enjoyed watching this movie.