It was likely, if not downright inevitable, that in the year of our lockdown, somebody would make a drama called “Locked Down,” about a handful of people in lockdown. The director Doug Liman and the screenwriter Steven Knight conceived their movie in July, sold it in September, and had completed shooting it, in London, by the end of October. They turned it around nearly as quickly as Steven Soderbergh did “The Girlfriend Experience,” his shoestring guerrilla drama shot at the end of 2008 in response to the global economic meltdown.
In more ways than not, “Locked Down,” which premieres on HBO Max on Jan. 14, feels like one of the modestly budgeted, shot-on-the-fly movies that Soderbergh has been making as palate cleansers ever since “Full Frontal,” in 2002. The film is set over a few days during the first month of the pandemic (there’s a radio reference to the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson being hospitalized, which occurred last April), and the heart of it unfolds in a townhouse on Great Portland Street in West London, where Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor, as a veteran couple, hang out, thrash around, bounce off the walls, and spill their guts, all as a way of trying to avoid cracking up under the strain of forced confinement.
“Locked Down” has a good time satirizing such now-iconic COVID-19 rituals as the forced civility of corporate Zoom calls, the ADD agony of socially distanced lines to get into supermarkets, the falling into old addictive habits (in this case: smoking, guzzling wine, and going off the wagon after 10 years to smoke opium), and, more than any of that, the claustrophobic ritual of talking, talking, talking as a kind of desperate existential self-therapy. The film’s deadpan atmosphere of voyeuristic impishness, the casual shaggy-dog cameos by stars (Ben Stiller, Mindy Kaling, Claes Bang) who would be featured gets for most directors, the fact that the film ultimately turns into a desperado heist drama like “Logan Lucky” — at this point, you could almost say that “Locked Down” belongs to the Soderbergh genre.
The one distinctive difference is that Steven Knight, who made the superb Tom Hardy into-the-night solo drama “Locke” (2014), has written an exuberantly verbose screenplay that allows Hathaway and Ejiofor to attack their characters as if they were acting on stage in some delirious Sam Shepard two-hander. “Locked Down,” which begins with a hedgehog wriggling down the garden steps like a refined version of the gopher mascot in “Caddyshack,” never loses its light, floridly witty, slightly detached tone of look-we’re-making-a-movie-here!, but it’s also a lockdown drama that has more than a little on its mind. Ejiofor’s character, Paxton, is a former druggie and biker who’s still clinging to his bad-boy days, though he’s now a van driver trapped in a nattering intellectual bunker of eloquent self-loathing. “My super-analysis of every grain of sand, every word?” says Paxton. “Being locked up is making it worse.” Linda, a CEO with issues of her own, heads the UK division of a ruthlessly amoral conglomerate, and beneath her backstabbing acumen lies a woman of conscience who has watched herself betray herself.
After 10 years together, these two have hit the skids — Linda announces, early on, that she’s leaving the relationship — and the movie is about how lockdown, for the two of them, becomes a kind of truth game that pushes them apart and pulls them together. “Locked Down,” at times, generates an uneasy mixture of intimacy and showiness, yet it’s a kick to watch a couple of actors who are this terrific pull out all the stops. Ejiofor, a master of understatement, plays Paxton as a likable blowhard who overstates his own angst (he’s also a lyric soul who shouts poetry on the street), and he brings it off by lending even the character’s windiest monologues a crestfallen edge. Hathaway, meanwhile, makes Linda the kind of high-strung tornado who speaks from the tip of her brain. It’s as if her character from “Rachel Getting Married” had grown up and gone straight, taming but never quite repressing her inner manic hunger.
There’s no denying that these two are living a privileged life. Yet as the film sees it, even that offers little protection from the cruelties that lockdown has a way of unleashing. Paxton, in the midst of finally selling his beloved motorcycle, finds that he may be losing everything — his partner, his identity as a rebel, his reason for being. Ejiofor has a speech about taking the bike out for one last ride and lighting up a smoke (the tobacco, he says, “tastes like youth”) that will speak to anyone who has ever felt forced to leave the past behind. And Hathaway’s monologue about how she snuck off to an executive birthday party in Paris, where she began to see the specter of “emerging markets” as a kind of living swamp creature, is a hyperkinetic tour de force of contemporary corporate confession.
So how does “Locked Down” slide from psychodrama to robbery? In a way that just about signposts its own coincidental contrivance. Linda, as part of her job, has to move the $3 million Harris Diamond out of the fabled Harrods department store so that it can be delivered to some ruthless world dictator. Paxton’s weekend driving gig is…to pick up a shipment out of Harrods. When they see that their assignments have converged, the two stumble onto the idea of stealing the diamond, replacing it with the fake version that’s on display for the public.
You may not buy every detail of how the plan comes off. Yet Liman, shooting in the real Harrods (the first time that’s ever been done — they could do it because the store closed down during the pandemic), does an ingenious job of milking the heist for ordinary-people-caught-up-in-a-caper suspense. Paxton’s boss, played over the phone by an irascible Ben Kingsley, has gotten around some red tape by assigning Paxton the fake name of “Edgar Allan Poe,” and the film makes tasty comic hay out of the way this plays out — the dread of it being a telltale giveaway, along with the fact that no one actually seems to remember who Edgar Allan Poe was.
“Locked Down” is a lark, a made-for-the-pandemic entertainment that winks at its own built-in shelf life. Yet for anyone watching it right now, the movie has a message that can resonate. It’s that the single most sane response to lockdown is, in fact, to let yourself go a little crazy, to acknowledge your inner demon of confinement and give into it. If you do that, the movie says, you may just come out the other side.