Released 2014. Written and directed by Steven Knight. Starring Tom Hardy.
There are plot spoilers here, although they are locked behind the first paragraph. Get it? Locked. Locke-d. Locke is the name of the film. Forget it.
There’s a breed of film that likes to restrict itself. It uses a single very concise location, or one main one with very few excursions elsewhere; it tells its story in real time, or near-real time; it features very few actors (often only one), who appear throughout. Of this breed, there are two flavours. There are the interesting ones, such as Buried and Rope; then there are the extraordinarily silly ones, such as Phone Booth and Devil. (Sometimes, I admit, you will come across a film that straddles this distinction, and that film is Carnage.) No matter what their variations on the theme, these films all have one thing in common, which is that I love them unconditionally. Imposing limits on oneself is a reliable recipe for something fun or intriguing – these films are laboratory experiments designed to discover what is possible to achieve despite confinement, and they’re always playful. Locke, set entirely within a car driven by Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) from Birmingham to London, is a member of the interesting group: it’s slow, careful, visually rich and utterly engrossing.
The film’s premise is dead simple: Ivan Locke, the foreman of a building site in Birmingham (we’re treated to a shot of the enormous hole in the ground that will be recognisable to Birmingham locals as what became The Cube), leaves work one night in his BMW in a slight daze and heads for the motorway. And the phone calls commence. He won’t be home to watch the football with his kids and wife (Ruth Wilson), even though she’s finally been convinced to wear the team’s shirt. His underling at work, Donal (Andrew Scott), is in a panic because his boss isn’t there to prepare for tomorrow’s important concrete pour. And a woman with whom he once slept while away from home, Bethan (Olivia Colman), is in labour with his child. She is his destination. Ivan’s decision to let down his family and employee is made because he is desperate to atone for his mistake of infidelity; the most important thing, as he sees it, is to be present in this child’s life the way his own father never was in his.
Ivan is intriguing because he is so thoroughly a good person – too thoroughly, in fact. He is trying to do the best he can to keep things together, but he is methodical and cold. He won’t tell Bethan he loves her, because it’s the truth, and he will not lie to her even to comfort her, instead telling her she is “in distress” (a phrase he uses at several moments, its effect being to distance himself from emotional involvement in anything). He reveals to his wife his mistake, one made out of pity for a woman he barely knows and loneliness of his own, leading her to respond with predictable anger and anguish – one wonders why he tells her at all, especially over the phone while travelling to the very place Bethan is, other than due to a near-psychopathic need to be honest. Is there harm in waiting until he returns home, when the dust has settled and they can speak in person? On the other hand, the concrete pour gives Ivan perhaps his only success – so scrupulous and reliable is he that even after Ivan is fired with immediate effect for deserting, his request to Donal to speak only to him and to ignore calls from his corporate overlords is adhered to, and he is able to interrupt a councillor’s dinner to get a road properly closed, allowing him to ensure the pour is up to the high standard he demands. It’s a qualified success, to be sure, as he loses his job, but the pour is primed to go well the following day. His personality makes his work great, even when he is technically no longer allowed to do it, but is no use for connecting to others. At times Ivan appears to allocate far more emotional space to the concrete and the skyscraper it will support than for his wife, or anyone else close to him. Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t need to be insulated from the concrete. It won’t respond badly to the truth.
The central performance from Hardy is, as you would expect given that he portrays the only on-screen character, crucial to the film’s success. From the first phone call he makes, Ivan is addressing problems that only go on to get worse, and there is a tension between his personal reactions to these developing situations and his phone manner, which remains calm and dispassionate throughout. He is a man who is dedicated to doing what he believes is right despite the stress that doing so creates; a man being torn from his family by a mistake he made and the memory of his deceased father; a man who suppresses anger and sadness to the point where he comes over as emotionally inert; a man who is unsure enough about the decision he has made that he forces himself to push ahead with it in the belief, or perhaps just hope, that everything will work out eventually. Everything is subtext, and Hardy does a sensational job of communicating it. There are a few brief moments in which Ivan speaks to his father as though he is sitting in the back of the car – these scenes already feel out-of-place due to both Ivan’s and the film’s down-to-Earth nature, and given dialogue elsewhere and Hardy’s strength at subtly conveying enshrouded character details, one wonders whether they are really necessary at all. In fairness, they are visually shrewd in their use of mirrors to imply Ivan’s fear that he will repeat his father’s wrongdoing, and maybe that’s enough to justify them.
Speaking of visuals, one of the greatest challenges and joys of a film like Locke is in playing How-Many-Ways-Are-There-To-Film-A-Guy-In-A-Car. Not many, as it turns out, but that’s no problem. The film’s visual aesthetic ebbs and flows between straightforwardly shooting Hardy and artfully layering images and partial reflections over one another, generating at times a dreamlike quality that doesn’t just depict but evokes those long night-time car journeys, that regular pulsing of light from lampposts, alternately rich and putrid in its deep yellow hue. The road never changes. Ivan simply drives along an unforgiving ribbon of grey tarmac removing him from the life he knew, propelling him towards one whose future is uncertain. It’s beautiful and poetic, and absolutely apt.