The last major Hollywood blockbuster to come out before the rules of production, distribution and exhibition were rewritten has been Sonic the hedgehog. Almost a year later, Locked– written, shot and edited during quarantine and set in COVID-ravaged London – opens with a photo of a stoned hedgehog, descending a staircase after licking the opium from some poppies growing undetected in a suburban garden. It is, I would say, progress. As the emblem of a movie about buried characters desperate to pull away and experience some sort of high, the little creature has its own crazy logic, and if you can put yourself on that wavelength, Locked offers its share of bizarre and unpredictable delicacies. Whatever else you can say about Doug Liman’s exercise in off-grid filmmaking, give him this: it’s not derived from anything.
Singularity was also the selling point of Serenity, the last film scripted by Steven Knight, which you might remember, was WTF Movie of the Year 2019 – a bizarre neo-noir starring Matthew McConaughey as a raffish fisherman locked in an eternal fight with a tuna called Justice. The twist was that nothing in the film – McConaughey, the fish, the location of the island, Anne Hathaway as the Dangerous Lady, Jeremy Strong as the bookish efficiency expert – was real: the melodrama of the greenhouse (including those McConaughey’s ass shots) was part of a video game simulation created by an abused child trying to communicate with his deceased father. If Knight, who also wrote David Cronenberg’s excellent Russian mafia drama Eastern promises, is one of the most uneven screenwriters of his time, that’s because of the way his old-fashioned work collides with an eccentricity that is out of step with franchise-era cinema.
There is a difference between ideas and intellectual property, and Knight is interested in the former. Serenity is deeply silly, but it’s not the kind of film that exists to meet pre-existing demand; on the contrary, it represents an attempt to satire chain and box genre cinema. There is also a difference between good ideas and bad ideas, and when Knight has a good one, like in his previous directorial effort. Locke, the same commitment to the little that made Serenity ridiculous becomes exhilarating.
Locked exists on the same conceptual continuum as Serenity and Locke, both of whom have played with the theme of isolation and claustrophobia, whether it’s shrinking the entire universe inside a car or creating a lush virtual world to allegorize a locked-in reality. Here, the pandemic provides its own context: one of the film’s foreground shots is Anne Hathaway screaming into a pillow before turning to take a video call on her laptop. Her character, Linda, works for a high-end media relations company and hates her job, as well as everything else in 2020. She had been planning to leave her partner, Paxton (Chiwetel Ejiofor), since Christmas previous and is now stuck in the shelter of the ruins of a relationship that runs its course.
The physical and emotional choreography of two wayward, wayward people trying to occupy the same contested space may seem too easy for some viewers to understand at this time. In this direction, Locked is the opposite of escape entertainment. Knight and Liman, however, have given themselves a riskier mandate than simply reflecting contemporary misery. After establishing itself as a study of lovers under duress – exactly the kind of film you would expect a small team to make while working under a set of restrictions –Locked redirects, improbably and catchy, in some sort of heist thriller, complete with a priceless diamond, deadline, and unspoken allusions to Hathaway’s role in The ocean 8.
The way Liman negotiates his film’s shift from madness to genre-film suspense is what makes Locked so fascinating, both compared to other films made during and on the forties and by his own directorial record. Between the Bourne series and Edge of tomorrow, Liman is a high-profile filmmaker who remains rooted in genre tropes and imagery. The last time he did something on a small scale, he presented a pair of snipers settling in the Middle East; the last time he made a film explicitly about the compromises and contingencies of marriage, this has Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie flip and fire semi-automatic guns at hordes of faceless henchmen.
LockedLiman’s slimy-style comedy represents a change of style and, to the director’s credit, he keeps things mostly in the strike zone. Heavily loaded Skype opening scenes suggest something similar to Rob Savage’s Host, a cleverly crafted thriller based on a Zoom shootout and released in 2020 that trapped the viewer in the same desktop aesthetic as Without a friend. Liman, however, continues to widen our field of vision away from Paxton and Linda’s apartment, gradually filling the portrait of a crippled and strangely depopulated metropolis. Some key scenes take place at Harrods, reduced here to a cavernous and luxurious wasteland filled with designer items but very few people; the interior landscape works in the same way as the Queen mary ii cruise ship backdrop in Steven Soderbergh’s recent Let them all talk, mixing cheeky product placement with belated, ironic capitalist criticism.
Let them all talk featured dialogue almost entirely improvised by its cast of award-winning actresses, and as a result, it felt loose and spontaneous – a film made on the fly. Knight, however, is a capital letter writer who enjoys rhetorical gimmicks and literary allusions, such as teaching a character that the false identity given to him in order to carry out a low-level scam is “Edgar Allan Poe” . The joke, and it’s a good (albeit classist) joke, is that most people who meet him under this pseudonym don’t recognize the name of one of the greatest writers of all time. Knight is a follower of metaphors, and he gave Paxton a very symbolic motorcycle that represents his youth freewheeling out of hell; when the film opens, he is about to sell it. Paxton is depressed: for a minute, he’s reciting poetry in the middle of the street with pomp and circumstance to entertain his trapped neighbors; The next one, he sneaks into the garage to stick a pipe in his helicopter’s tailpipe to ensure Linda is just a satirical, suicidal selfie.
Ejiofor is one of the most gifted actors around, but he’s never had a role like this. Paxton is a guy who acts more than life about his own diminished abilities, operating on a razor’s edge between self-aggrandizement and self-harm. The key to his performance is that while it’s clear at all times why Linda – or anyone else – would want to get away from him, he’s also so romantically alienated that we want her to tell him at the less something. Hathaway’s reaction plans are masterclasses in exasperation balanced with empathy, and Linda’s own set of neurotic tics allow the actress to display the slimy vulnerability that has always been her best quality.. In order for the movie to work, we have to want Paxton and Linda to get back together despite not actually being apart, which gives Locked its own unique – and very current – take on the genre of remarriage comedy in which bickering and recriminations are preludes to reconciliation. For all of its digital textures and movie details of the moment, Liman and Knight’s creation has the advantage of feeling old-fashioned.
Say that not everything works in Locked is an understatement. Its emphasis on the frustrations of successful, attractive characters in the midst of a global pandemic feels at odds with its subversive political subtext, and the flowery, hyperarticulate theatricality of the dialogue often strains credibility. The narrative tricks that bring Paxton and Linda to Harrods for the final set are so forced that they could almost be a commentary on the artifice itself, if it weren’t for Liman’s insistence down the home stretch on the realism in real time.
But there are a lot of boring movies that stick together, and something to say for those who threaten to be shattered. Locked lasts 118 minutes, but they are full of things: breakdowns; revelations; Robin Hood robbery; Ben Kingsley swears storm between homilies as a God-fearing delivery truck mogul; Hathaway swinging towards Adam Ant in pajamas; Ben Stiller is detained during a video call by his teenage son in the background; cameos by cast members of the UK and US versions of Office; an end-of-credits scene of someone making bread out of thin air; and that stoned hedgehog. It’s not only that non-sequiturs are fun, it’s fun to have so many in the first place. “I have great faith in fools,” Edgar Allan Poe once wrote. “Self-confidence, my friends will call it.” It would be nice if the movies had more.
Adam nayman is a Toronto-based film critic, teacher and author; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Truly Ties The Movies Together is available now from Abrams.