Written & Directed by Steven Knight
Ivan Locke has just ended a day of work as a foreman on a construction site in Birmingham, England. He embarks on the drive home…or is he? Locke phones his wife while on the motorway between Birmingham and London to tell her he won’t be coming home tonight. Meanwhile, he calls another woman, Bethan who inquires about his whereabouts and how long it will be before he gets to her. He makes calls between his supervisor and a colleague in an attempt to ensure the concrete pour the next morning goes off without a hitch. Whatever Locke is doing and where ever he is going it will completely upend his life as he knew it. During this two hour drive, he attempts desperately to bridge his present with this uncertain future.
Locke takes place entirely inside a car in almost real-time as the title character drives on the motorway. He uses his Bluetooth carphone to make and receive calls from the most important people in his personal and professional lives. The entire weight of this film is placed slowly on the shoulders of Tom Hardy. His is the only face we see over the course of the 70-minute film. His is the primary voice we hear, monologuing to himself through the conceit of talking to his dead father whom he imagines sitting in the backseat casting judgments about his son.
This is not the first time in the cinema a director has undertaken a single room film experiment. I recalled Robert Altman’s Secret Honor while watching this, a similar one-man show focused on its central character’s psychological state of mind. While that film is an examination of a highly charged icon of Richard Nixon, Locke is a character with whom it is much harder to elicit audience empathy. He is a complete unknown to us at the start and as we learn about what he has done it becomes challenging to be on his side. Knight cleverly uses a slow reveal of information to guide the audience through the ebb and flow of emotions. Where you end up with this character will depend entirely on how you experience that ride.
A film like Locke is the sort of lowkey assertion of Tom Hardy’s mastery of his craft. So often actors become defined by the biggest budget films they are in. For Hardy, his career seems to be seen as The Dark Knight Rises and Mad Max Fury Road by mainstream audiences. These are both fine films, but they are in no way a space in which Hardy is able to flex his acting chops either subtly or over the top. His 2008 biopic of England’s most notorious inmate Bronson is where he shows us how big he can go. Locke is Hardy’s display of how small he can be, yet still, develop complex layers of emotion.
Near the end of the film, he shares a phone call with his son (a then 17-year-old Tom Holland). They are discussing a football match that Locke has missed due to his middle of the night exodus. The topic of conversation on the son’s end is the miraculous performance of a player his father has labeled a “donkey” earlier in the night. Hardy only reacts during this scene, Holland is delivering all of the dialogue in a very natural, fast pace. He is a son who knows something is up based on how his mother has been acting, yet is scared to confront his father about it. By the end of this conversation, Hardy is in tears simultaneously staying steady in his voice when he finally speaks to his child, struggling not to betray his feelings.
Locke is a film that revels in its economy, remaining sparse and pared down. The story is not a world-shattering one, but it will shake up a small number of lives. This is what real drama is, not blue beams of light shooting into the heavens or a chaotic blur of technicolor fists. Human beings experiencing emotional pain and struggling through the consequences of their choices is the very foundation of great stories. Locke is a great story.