Over a year ago we saw Steven Knight makes his directorial debut with Redemption. The acclaimed screenwriter behind Eastern Promises and Dirty Pretty Things exhibited a clean eye for striking images and keen acting, with Jason Statham giving the most dramatically compelling performance of his career. It was a conventional yarn, despite being about a nun and a haunted gangster falling in love, but it was finely told, if a bit safe. Knight’s second effort behind the camera, Locke, doesn’t play it safe at all, yielding a powerful 85-minute result.
We’ve seen plenty of single location films, but setting a movie almost entirely in a car with a character consistently talking on the phone is ambition itself. Knight’s script matches that audacity. Locke is a thriller, except the suspense comes from interpersonal drama, not gun fights and explosions.
Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is a hardworking and honest family man. It’s a big night for him: his family is excited to watch a major football match together and the next day he’s meant to oversee the biggest concrete pour in European history. The problem is he won’t be present for either the football match or the pour. Months earlier he cheated on his wife (voiced by Ruth Wilson) with Bethan (voiced by Olivia Colman), who’s about to give birth to his child. She’s having a premature delivery, and Locke wants to be there for the child, so he’s driving to meet her at the hospital.
Within his car, he’ll have to tell his wife about the affair, his bosses about leaving town, and make sure everything goes according at work the next day. These major stakes aren’t big because of high dollars or death, but because Ivan’s whole world is falling apart, and it’s all his fault. He’s forced to have these life-changing conversations over the phone when driving. While that doesn’t sound cinematic, Locke certainly is.
Knight’s approach with cinematographer Harris Zambarloukos (Venus) is simplistic but effective. There are a few stylish touches, without Knight and Zambarloukos ever getting too showy. There’s almost always something going on with Locke, so Knight keeps the camera focused on Hardy’s commanding performance, and the result is striking.
Of course the movie lives on the shoulders of the writing, the acting and the challenges both present. Since he’s almost always driving, Hardy doesn’t have his whole body to express himself. Thankfully for Hardy, he doesn’t need it. Facial expressions and vocal tones are enough to express a wide range of emotions from a clearly conflicted character, and there’s plenty for him to chew on with Knight’s script. Locke is a great protagonist struggling with a enticing concept: doing what’s right, but arguably not what’s best. He’s empathetic because he’s entirely aware of his wrongdoing and because it seems like his one slip-up — a great guy who did one very bad thing. Locke never excuses his actions, which is part of what makes you hope he can manage to rebuild his life and keep a job that acts as a literal and metaphorical opportunity for starting fresh.
For both Ivan Locke and the audience, it’s an emotional ride. Even only through their voices, we get fully-realized characters from these phone calls. When Locke says Bethan is a lonely woman, we can hear what he’s talking about through Colman’s vulnerable intonations. The same skill recognition goes for the rest of the cast, including Ruth Wilson, a real star and talent on the rise. These actors get across emotional gut punches transmitted through cell towers, matching Hardy’s heavy presence behind the wheel.
Amid the dial tones, Locke also speaks with his dead father, who he may or may not see in the backseat. The character shows his greatest fear is becoming his father through heartfelt conversations with his wife, so the moments directly confronting the specter of who he wants to avoid are slightly redundant, but they’re emotionally charged scenes, creating a different kind of tension and interaction for the car-bound Locke. Seeing Hardy forgo his cool demeanor to blow off some steam at this ghost shows that Locke is human, a man struggling with fear and a lot of pain beneath a carefully honed persona. He’s not just the calm problem solver we see for most of the movie.
Because of engrossing performances (both live and over the phone) and a tight, personal crisis-launched script, this is an expertly tuned dramatic thriller that, like Ivan Locke, has no time to slowdown.
The Upside: Tom Hardy’s performance; suspenseful; shot with a simple beauty
The Downside: Bethan giving birth the night before the pour seems more of a plot contrivance than bad timing
On The Side: They shot the movie beginning to end a total of 16 times.