Locked Down, the new surprise HBO Max movie directed by Doug Liman and written by Steven Knight, is not the first major motion picture to be conceived, filmed, and then released during the pandemic. (That distinction belongs to last month’s Songbird, a.k.a. the fear-mongering dystopian COVID thriller produced by Michael Bay.) But it might be the first to present itself as a relatable vision of how we’re all living—a quarantine movie about life in quarantine. To which any sane viewer might reply, “No thanks!” It was inevitable that films would be made about this significant chapter in global history, in part because a small group of people enduring an extended stay in their own homes is about the only scenario it’s safe and logistically possible to actually shoot right now. But did the results have to start arriving while we’re all still stuck in this nightmare?
Shot in September, with a small cast in a small number of locations, Locked Down is set a little earlier—namely, late last spring, when it began to dawn on everyone that this wasn’t going to be over in a mere matter of weeks. (“They canceled the NBA,” complains a friend in America, effectively situating the film near the onset of our new normal.) The first thing we see is someone logging, begrudgingly, into a video chat. If nothing else, Locked Down captures all the hiccups of virtual communication: the buffering, the lag, the out-of-sync audio, the echo effect when two screens in the same household get too close together. You might nod with recognition—or wonder why you’re subjecting yourself to more boxes within boxes, a simulation of the simulated hangouts that have become our best option for socializing in the era of social distancing.
Thankfully, the whole film isn’t on that tablet. Long stretches of it do, however, take place in one place: the spacious London home of longtime partners Linda (Anne Hathaway) and Paxton (Chiwetel Ejiofor). She’s a rising executive at an ill-defined, vaguely fashion-related international corporation, wore out by her role as the bearer of bad news to employees being unceremoniously cut loose. He’s a former drug dealer and ex-convict who’s been furloughed from his clean, steady gig as a delivery-truck driver. The two are in the early stages of separating, and each are coping with their isolation in different ways—Linda by day-drinking and chain-smoking, Paxton by sampling the opiates growing in his garden and regaling the whole block with late-night poetry readings (a quirky insomnia cure that the film seems to believe the neighbors would mostly find charming, rather than really fucking annoying).
For Liman, this is a return to some approximation of indie filmmaking after a couple decades helming action vehicles for Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon. He shot the movie in just 18 days, the same amount of time it took him to make Swingers a lifetime ago. Perhaps there’s some self-portrait in Linda and Paxton’s wistful nostalgia for their salad days as careless, carefree young lovers, zipping around the city on his motorcycle. But Locked Down is more plainly Knight’s. The British screenwriter, whose similarly titled Locke was itself an experiment in close-quarters dramatic intimacy, uses the restrictions of COVID life as an excuse to indulge his appetite for blatantly theatrical tête-à-têtes. At a whopping 180 pages, his script unfolds as a string of breathless monologues and labored quips. Everything is a symbol to this writer: a bike, a bandana, a bag of flour, a Christmas decoration left up too long. One might charitably call that a symptom of quarantine; stuck looking at the same shit all day every day, it’s hard not to invest it with deeper meaning.
By the time a viewer realizes that Knight is riffing on the classic comedy of remarriage, Locked Down is pivoting to a shaggy heist-film scenario. The movie’s backstretch unfolds primarily in a half-empty Harrods, the luxury London department store, repurposed here as a massive film set thanks to the significant reduction of foot traffic caused by the pandemic. One might accuse the filmmakers of cheating on their setup, but maybe that just allows the movie to function as wish fulfillment: Who right now wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to leave the house and embark on an unexpected caper? Though it fills its little video-chat windows with famous faces (at times, we could be watching one of those celebrity table reads, with surprise guests popping in for a quick Zoom cameo every few minutes), Locked Down mainly rests on its stars, grappling earnestly with the mouthfuls Knight feeds them. While Ejiofor keeps his cool, this is the Hathaway show, for better or probably worse: Having survived the noir-kitsch vamping Knight saddled her with in Serenity, she boldly overacts her way through a motor-mouthed pantomime of screwball stress, bounding from tipsy soliloquies to embarrassing Adam Ant rage dances.
Maybe this all works, accidentally or not, as a time capsule of very contemporary irritation. Will future audiences look back on Locked Down and feel some of our pain, watching two good actors sputter through a simulacrum of cabin-fever conflict? What they won’t get, for all the Zoom gags and insights into the itchy impatience of an interrupted social life, is a sense of how most of us really lived in 2020. Because though the aim may be to immortalize this shitty present, Knight and Liman look at it through the lens of those for whom a lack of space is a decidedly relative problem and the economic symptoms of COVID an abstract one. After all, this is a movie whose plot hinges, amusingly but snobbishly, on the average person having no idea who Edgar Allen Poe is, and on the truly outrageous notion of a laid-off corporate casualty covering, happily and righteously, for the very middle manager who fired him. Of course, maybe a little out-of-touch cluelessness isn’t such a bad thing in this case. Cinema need not be an escape, but good luck finding anyone stoked to see their own daily, indoor tedium accurately reenacted by movie stars on webcams.