As COVID-19 lockdowns and mask-usage debates first began,one wealthy CEO made headlines for attempting to organize a “virus-free” retreat in Southern California. No masks — just rich people and vibes.
Before it was cancelled, the ill-conceived plan drew comparisons to a short story by Edgar Allen Poe called, “The Masque of the Red Death.” In it,a powerful prince whose country has been ravaged by a fatal disease acts quickly and without mercy. After several months locked in his castle, he decides to throw a masquerade ball for his most loyal followers. Like any good Poe story, it ends in tragedy, when death itself arrives at the event and kills all 1,000 attendees — an allegory for the inevitability of fate.
In “Locked Down,” main characters Linda (Anne Hathaway) and Paxton (Chiwetel Ejiofor) learn a similar lesson. “The Masque” acts as a central piece of source material for the film, which packs itself with clichés and questionable plot points in an attempt to dramatize pandemic life for a weary audience.
Set in London at the beginning of COVID-19 lockdowns, the seriocomedy starts with Linda, a fashion CEO, and her boyfriend Paxton, a furloughed delivery driver, on the verge of breaking up. While the motto of their younger days was “live wild or die,” that spark is nearly gone, and being stuck in the house together has only made it worse. The two mirror each other as they cope with the pandemic; Linda drinks through her workday and sneaks cigarettes, while Paxton becomes aggressively nihilistic and relapses on opioids.
When Paxton gets a job transporting a three-million-pound diamond out of Harrods department store, Linda, who used to work there, sees an opportunity to spice up their relationship one last time. With one million for each of them and a donation to the National Health Service, stealing the jewel is a win-win-win situation. Linda can quit her job and leave Paxton, he can live out his dreams as a righteous motorcyclist-slash-poet, and they can both pat themselves on the back.
Like their plan, the film itself was produced hastily. According to Vulture, it was shot over just 18 days and the cast, which includes cameos from Mindy Kaling and Ben Stiller, signed on without reading the entire script. Even heist-movie-expert Hathaway falls into lazy acting habits as she angrily recites monologues that all seem to blend with one another, most likely because some scenes were shot with the actors’ lines taped to the walls.
It isn’t until the third act that the movie becomes what director Doug Liman truly intended it to be: an anxiety-inducing (and pretty cool) heist scene inside a famous department store that’s made even more terrifying by the fact that most of the extras, many of whom are real Harrods employees, aren’t wearing masks.
That is, except Paxton, who is wearing a red bandana Linda says makes him look like a “desperado.” If that wasn’t obvious enough, he’s also wearing a fake name tag that identifies him as “Edgar Allen Poe,” another opium addict who had an affinity for darkness.
But for every engaging moment in “Locked Down,” there are three that beg the questions, Why this, and Why now? Nearly a year into the worst global pandemic in modern history, why does the first serious jab at COVID-era filmmaking have to be a half-baked “Ocean’s 8?” After everything that has transpired from March 2020 onward, including global protests for racial justice and worsening economic crises, the movie goes out of its way to avoid making any definitive statements on race and class, except a few that are unintended.
Hathaway’s lines account for a majority of the script, and when Ejiofor does speak it is often through recitations of white poets such as T.S. Eliot and Robert Graves. The most climactic moments for his character seem to happen in silence and offscreen, like when he goes on a joyride and comes home to gleefully profess that he was chased by the police in what he calls “a new lockdown game.”
In his first reading, Paxton stands outside the house and recites a poem called “Stand Up” by D.H. Lawrence, an early-20th century British poet. “Stand up for justice,” he shouts at his neighbors, whom he calls his “fellow inmates” in their “Portland Street prison.” As he — a lone Black man — stands there, a siren wails in the distance.
Taken together, it’s hard to believe the scene is not an explicit reference to the protests in response to George Floyd’s death last summer. In Portland, Oregon specifically, the federal government deployed heavily armed and unidentified officers who used tear gas and whisked demonstrators off the street. The country watched with bated breath as democracy unraveled before its eyes.
But in “Locked Down,” being chased by police officers is either a metaphor for “living wild,” or a high-stakes climax at the end of the film after Linda willingly puts Paxton in further danger by dragging him around the entire department store. And the pandemic, which amplified existing inequities around the world, is an apolitical inconvenience that takes a backseat to the heist.
The central plot of robbing Harrods appears to be a reference to the looting that occurred in many parts of the United States last summer, but the commentary ends there. Linda and Paxton have no intention of improving the conditions of Londoners who have it worse than them, they only want to free themselves from a prison they invented.
At its best, “Locked Down” holds a mirror and reminds viewers of how much has changed since the start of the pandemic. Sadly, those moments are rare, and the film proves, instead, how much farther there is to go — to normalcy, and, hopefully, more refined storytelling.