A tone-deaf and insensitive studio films set during the COVID-19 pandemic
No doubt there will be a plethora of films and art commenting on the COVID-19 pandemic and the effects of lockdown. Already there have been some rather ingenious pieces that use the pandemic as a backdrop for some interesting stories, there was the enjoyable horror flick Host (2020) and the sweet Spanish short film Vecinooo (2020). Both films were able to strike a certain balance between not exploiting the pandemic for commercial appeal and having a genuine narrative to tell. This is not the case with the HBO Max film Locked Down (2021).
Locked Down takes place during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are enclosed in a well-to-do house in London, with Paxton (Chiwetel Ejiofor) a recently furloughed and passionate poet, and Linda (Anne Hathaway) a retail executive taking meeting after meeting on Zoom. Both our main characters used to be a couple, but have since drifted apart, kept together in the same home due to the lockdown measures imposed in Britain. As such the film follows the lockdown activities that have become commonplace for many westerners in the middle to upper class.
Locked Down is directed by Doug Liman from a screenplay by Steven Knight. Both filmmakers have produced some truly imaginative and great films in the past, but are completely misguided here. It seems that the only reason for Locked Down’s existence is that the filmmakers wanted to make a film during the COVID-19 pandemic for the sake of it. There is absolutely nothing that the filmmakers want to say, and as such much of the first two acts of the film seem to be simply filming Ejiofor and Hathaway as they endure lockdown. It proves to be an uninteresting barrage of zoom calls, watching the news, debating whether to make bread, and clapping for the healthcare workers in the evening. It is only in the final act that the semblance of a heist film begins to take shape. I would have been fine with watching a heist flick, but there seems to be absolutely no build up in Locked Down towards it, and the backdrop of the pandemic seems less of a gimmick than being exploitative for studio profit.
One of the biggest problems with Locked Down is the inability to realize how tone deaf it is. To make a commercial romantic comedy/heist film about the pandemic might be fine in future years, but to exploit a virus, which is still raging and at its peak of killing people, seems completely insensitive. This is especially the case when taking into account that the wealthy characters in their large home seem to be complaining and distressed during the lockdown and make no mention of the larger majority of people that are suffering much worse conditions. This is not to discount the distress and depressions that people in large houses have undergone through COVID-19; every human being is allowed to be saddened and depressed, money clearly can’t buy happiness, but the choice of these characters to be our protagonists at this particular moment in time is problematic. I struggled to find a comparison to the incongruity of this choice of setting and characters and came up with: what if the first major art piece that came out during World War I was Downton Abbey (2010-2015). If this were the case many would not discount the story being told by Downton Abbey, but one would question whether it was the most urgent and sensitive topic to be portraying at the time.
Despite the insensitivity of Locked Down’s release strategy, the narrative and plot itself is a disaster. I was surprised that Liman and Knight delivered such a trivial and underworked script. For example, the first line that a character speaks is “Don’t call me your brother, because I’m your half-brother.” Yes, because we all start conversations that way with our siblings. The exposition is so bluntly delivered and uninteresting that I found a great temptation in hitting the ‘pause’ button on the remote and watching something else. However, I felt a duty to completing the film in order to objectively ward off my readers. As the film progressed the dialogue got clunkier, the characters more ridiculous, and the story more nonsensical. It really seemed as if the film was being made up and written as it went along. There are no arcs, no defined character motivations, not even a consistency of narrative continuity. This is largely attributed to the embarrassing script delivered by Knight. However, the direction was of great disappointment as well.
Liman, who has previously brought great creativity visually and narratively with such films as The Bourne Identity (2002), Edge of Tomorrow (2014), and recently American Made (2017) is absolutely uninspired in Locked Down. The camera work is minimal and lacks an ounce of creativity, switching from a filmed computer screen of a Zoom or Skype call to an unimaginative and over-lit shot. Liman is incapable of bringing about a cohesion to his actors, having Ejiofor and Hathaway performing all over the place; in some scenes seeming small and restrained and in others completely over the top. It really seemed as if the actors were simply acting the way they were feeling on a particular shooting day, jumbling the style and tone of the film. The grounding of the characters is not helped by the unnecessary barrage of useless cameos, who pop in on Zoom and range from the likes of Ben Kingsley and Ben Stiller, to Lucy Boynton and Mindy Kaling. These appearances serve absolutely no purpose and give off the air of Hollywood friends who were bored at home and asked to appear in the film.
The finale and heist can’t salvage this film either, as they prove to be lazily constructed with boring stakes. The result is that Locked Down proves to be a tone-deaf, aimless, and useless mess. The talent put together to make this film should have delivered something far more intriguing, but instead we get a narrative that would feel low-quality as a YouTube short.