Liman: Locked Down (2021)
Of all the films made about and during the COVID-19 lockdown, Locked Down is perhaps the most realistic – and the least enjoyable. It takes place in London, at the peak of the pandemic, during Boris Johnson’s hospitalisation, and focuses on a couple who were in the last stages of a painful breakup when they were forced to shelter in place. Linda, played by Anne Hathaway, is a CEO at a fashion company, while Paxton, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is a delivery driver, and can only get menial work due to an assault conviction from beating up a biker a decade before. For the first part of the film, they wallow in the agony of lockdown, before deciding upon an improbable heist scheme to break the boredom. Since Linda has been tasked with clearing out inventory at Harrods, and Paxton is driving vans for a company involved with Harrods, they set out to steal a 3 million pound diamond that has been put on display there.
On paper, this sounds like an intriguing premise, and there are moments when Locked Down manages to glimpse a perkier reprieve from the pandemic. This tends to occur when other actors make cameos to break the deadlock of Linda and Paxton’s passive-aggressive rapport. Ben Kingsley, Ben Stiller, Mindy Kaling and Stephen Merchant all appears as friends and colleagues, presumably Zooming in from wherever they had bunkered down during the pandemic. The perky piano score also tries to situate the action within a comic lineage of apartment films, or even an earlier subgenre of screwball in which couples were packed like sardines into impossibly tight living quarters. These scenes are quite similar to those in Coastal Elites, which tried to find the lighter side of lockdown through the absurdity of Zoom.
Yet these funnier and perkier moments are ultimately few and far between in Locked Down, which feels too mired in the pandemic to offer much of a reprieve from it. This makes it a strangely traumatic film to experience in retrospect – full of grey rain, grey light and a general grey mood, as Paxton and Linda spiral off into their various latent pathologies. It’s also a strange mixture of social realism and genre film. While there is technically a heist buried in there, it never moves beyond a fantasy of escaping lockdown, meaning the film is never actually able to provide the fantasy itself, leaving us even more frustrated when it’s all over.
All that said, Locked Down is quite remarkable in how deftly and depressively it captures the day-to-day rhythms of lockdown. Linda and Paxton are perpetually bleary-eyed, and slumped in one drab, downbeat posture after another, caught in a diffuse space between sleeping and waking. They never quite shake off bed, but they can’t sleep at night either, meaning they’re overtired, but sickened by the thought of getting into bed. Instead, they’re always on the verge of lying down, never quite vertical, and unable to distinguish themselves from the domestic fixtures that prop them up: “you can’t tell what is your body and what is furniture.”
For very brief scenes, they muster the effort to put on a brave face and regulate their body language for Zoom calls. Yet this is ultimately just “nostalgia for old-fashioned formality,” since by this point in the pandemic we’re beyond the point of formal Zoom sign-offs. Virtually every Zoom conversation here is aborted or prematurely ended, as friends and colleagues simply drift in and out of Linda and Paxton’s peripheral vision. We’re also at that point in lockdown when Zoom calls cease to be about real dialogue – they’re just a way to have a second person present so each party can talk aloud to themselves without seeming insane.
As a result, the Zoom conversations segue pretty seamlessly into the running monologues which drive the film. These monologues blur all distinction between speech and thought, poising Linda and Paxton on a precipice between inner and outer utterance, much as they’re poised between sleep and wakefulness. Sometimes we hear inner monologues that would work better as dialogue, while the spoken monologues often play like a crazed stream of consciousness – a torrent of word salad, or mentalese, that would normally remain hidden.
This slippage between intention and action means that Locked Down doesn’t merely feel set during lockdown, but shot during lockdown, absorbing the depressive mood of lockdown at every juncture. We see it in the profound pessimism about the capacity of human relationships to endure, since every romantic or family connection appears to have deteriorated beyond the point of no return. We also see in the pervasive sense of professional finitude – Paxton has been furloughed, and Linda has to furlough and fire people, with no stable space in between. Every human encounter eventually implodes, most dramatically when Linda contacts her professional “family” only to inform them that they’ve all been fired.
Locked Down also feels as if it was written during lockdown, since the screenplay is manic and rambling at the same time, as if reflecting a mind that is slowly but steadily going stir crazy. At one point, Paxton tells a toxic colleague that “you represent the longest and most well-managed nervous breakdown in history,” a description that could apply to the entire world of the film. Time and again, screenwriter Steven Knight tries to get the film out of this depressive funk, and time and again he fails, meaning that the opening scenes, and the establishment of this lockdown world, stretch out until they encompass nearly the entire film.
This occludes any sense of the outside world, leaving Paxton and Linda with only the most notional sense of where other people are. At one point, a colleague Linda thought was in Italy is actually in Spain, at another point she assumes her boss is in Chicago only to learn he has retreated to Vermont. To some extent, Liman tries to remedy this with the heightened awareness of sightlines that was so typical of lockdown. In one scene, Linda has a conversation with the neighbour at her eye level across the road. In another scene, Paxton discovers a gang of youths foraging for poppies in his backyard. They tell him they located the poppies by scouring the local neighbourhood with a telescope from a nearby housing tower.
Liman also tries to foreground the uncanny ways that lockdown drew the thresholds of our domestic lives into relief. The film is full of POV and over-the-shoulder shots that emphasise the enormous gulf between the couple’s door and the street outside – when UberEats arrives, when the mail is delivered, and when Paxton recites a poem to the neighbourhood. There’s a similarly vivid sense of the back fence, where the poppies have been growing all these years, unbeknownst to either Paxton or Linda. When Paxton discovers the gang, they speculate that the poppies were planted by hippies, who occupied the neighbourhood in the 70s, forcing Paxton to see both the temporal and spatial thresholds of his own occupation in a new way.
Yet these spatial symptoms of the pandemic gradually shift from view, as the action retreats inwards and we become enmeshed in the agonising decay of Linda and Paxton’s romance. What little narrative exists is beset by a profound apathy and inertia, like all other linear pursuits during lockdown. Ironically, all the ingredients are here for a good heist story, while the heist works in principle as a lockdown trope as well. As Paxton points out, he already needs to wear a mask for health reasons, while the streets are entirely empty. On top of that, COVID-19 protocols mean there aren’t any accompanying drivers, and less security as well.
More generally, heist films are nearly always about anticipating and preparing for a future space. This has been a dominant experience during lockdown, when so many of us fantasised about how we would navigate physical space itself once the pandemic was over. Yet the outside world has also become a heist space during lockdown – fraught with dangers that require strategic planning, especially when it involves tactical entries and exits. The heist is thus the perfect vehicle to imagine a world in which everyday space has become fortified, along with a world where everyone is imagining the future of space as a kind of remote prize.
Despite that perfect synergy between heist and pandemic, the film can never quite bring itself to transform into a full-blown heist film during its third act. Instead, the heist genre, and the very idea of genre, is reduced to a fantasy, a mere projection of something – anything – that might relieve the tedium of the pandemic. The entire second act is spent preparing for a heist that can never happen, which in turn makes Harrods, the outside world, and the world beyond the pandemic all feel too overdetermined to ever eventuate. In one especially unparsable scene, Linda takes Paxton through an incomprehensible map of Harrods, while revealing the existence of a second fake diamond, as he (and we) struggle in vain to keep up.
Liman and Knight tend to fall back upon Gothic imagery to capture the impossibility of this heist. In a dark joke, one of Paxton’s co-workers gives him the alias “Edgar Allen Poe” for the heist. This captures the Gothic reticulation of space that stands in for the heist itself, but it also recalls Poe’s own treatise on urban space – “The Man of the Crowd.” In one of the foundational formulations of the flaneur, Poe’s nameless narrator follows a man through the ebb and flow of mid-nineteenth century London. Liman has a similar ambition here, preparing us to track Paxton through a diametrically opposite, but equally oppressive cityscape, defined by its yawning absences rather than the overwhelming masses of people that Poe described.
Yet Locked Down has a kind of reflexive impotence whenever it tries to take us into the cityscape, reflecting that hesitation on the brink of public space that was such a defining feature of lockdown. Certainly, the narrative periodically builds mobility, using buses, cars and motorcycles to take us into the empty streets of central London, and pump up the propulsion and momentum in the process. Whenever this happens, though, the action immediately doubles down on the housebound stuff again, like a motor that revs but can never quite get into gear. I wondered where Liman was subjected to strict prohibitions upon using public space, so scrupulously does the film pull back whenever the outside world is near.
Only in the abbreviated final act, then, do we actually arrive at Harrods. There’s potential for a great set piece here, as Linda and Paxton wander through the store as it prepares to close for the first time in a century. In one especially surreal scene, Linda takes Paxton through the famous food hall, and invites him to take whatever he wants before the remaining produce is all donated to charity. Driven by magisterial tracking-shots and cavernous spaces, these scenes reimagine the opening scenes of The Shining through the lens of the pandemic, drawing on the closure of the Overlook Hotel to evoke the widespread closure of public institutions. Winter, here, is the virus, and everyone is on the verge of total isolation, and total insanity.
Weirdly, though, Liman doesn’t really nail this final set piece, presumably because the shooting schedule was so limited, and perhaps because he had to work around the procedures at Harrods at the time. Yet this in itself also makes Locked Down feel inseparable from the pandemic, as the film’s conclusion, embodies, rather than relieves, the inability to achieve a satisfactory public space during the peak of lockdown. With the heist complete, Linda and Paxton head to Heathrow, and the prospect of international travel – the ultimate limit-experience of the pandemic – only for the action to abruptly shift back to them in bed.
In the first sustained comic scene, we learn that they couldn’t take a plane anywhere, since lockdown has now been extended for two weeks. There’s a glimpse of screwball here, but in the end this is bathos more than comedy – the film’s last concession that it doesn’t have the energy to translate the pandemic into a genre film while mired in the midst of lockdown. Accordingly, these final scenes let go of any claim to plausibility – there’s no way Linda and Paxton would have got away with the heist – and drift us off into oblivion as cursorily as the end of one the film’s many Zoom calls. It’s not a satisfying ending, or a satisfying film, but it does feel symbiotically fused with the pandemic more than any other film made during lockdown. Call it a spiritual sequel to Edge of Tomorrow, continually promising us with a future, and an end to lockdown that, at this point, was completely unthinkable, even in film.
Leave a Reply