Film Review: Locke

Taut, disturbing and unique drama about a man racing toward his destiny, providing Tom Hardy, literally, with a vehicle to flaunt his acting chops.

While one-man plays, or stage shows, are common enough, one-man movies are rare, and most of those depict the character in extremis: James Franco in 127 Hours, Sam Rockwell in Moon, Ryan Reynolds in Buried, which lit up the Tomatometer but didn’t excite audiences nearly as much. Alas, this may be the melancholic fate that awaits Locke, which features a brilliant performance by Tom Hardy played entirely as he drives his BMW along Great Britain’s M1 motorway from Birmingham to London.

As the film opens, Ivan Locke, manager of a massive construction project in the city, is walking off the job on the eve of the biggest cement pour in Europe. No sooner behind the wheel, he begins to make calls through the vehicle’s hands-free mobile: to his wife, who is preparing sausages for their two boys to enjoy while they watch a soccer match; to a woman in a hospital who we learn is the reason he’s driving south; and to his boss and colleagues, who are depending on him to make sure tomorrow’s big pour goes right, for tens of millions of pounds depend on the next few hours of work.

It becomes apparent that Locke is in the grip of an existential crisis, one he has brought upon himself with a single bad choice, and that now requires him to make decisions that will have irreversible moral and economic consequences for his family, his company…in short, his life. To complicate matters, Locke has unresolved issues about his father, who made a similar bad choice but never accepted responsibility for his actions, leaving Locke with psychological scars that in the next 90 minutes resurface with a vengeance.

Steven Knight, who wrote Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises and the recent Closed Circuit, has lately turned to directing, helming Redemption (with Jason Statham) and now Locke in quick succession. (Knight is also notable as the creator of the absurdly successful TV series “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.”) He posed himself formidable conceptual and technical challenges—how to keep audiences interested in a story that unfolds entirely through phone conversations, that offers no opportunity for exposition other than those conversations, and that requires the hero to remain stationary from beginning to end. Yet Locke has more tension and suspense than, well, the aforementioned Closed Circuit, which had the advantage of nefarious terrorists, evil bureaucrats and all the other familiar elements that comprise modern thrillers. Locke is everything most of those films aren’t, with an identifiable character struggling with real problems, but compressing time and place to concentrate emotion and heighten mood.

That said, Knight is indebted to Tom Hardy, who delivers a convincing, and deeply moving, performance. Hardy has appeared in a number of successful films (Inception, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Dark Knight Rises), but he might be best known to movie buffs as the eponymous lead in the brutal prison drama Bronson. For Locke, he effects a Welsh accent (so reports Wales Online) to give his character an everyman quality, and indeed it’s his quiet resolve to see through his mistake, and his admirable reserves of self-confidence, patience and steadfastness, that win our empathy. (The actor is poised to break out, starring as Mad Max in Fury Road and Elton John in Rocketman, scheduled for release in 2014 and 2015, respectively.)

Cinematographer Haris Zambarioukos (Mamma Mia!) and editor Justine Wright (The Iron Lady) manage to make palpable Locke’s inner turmoil as he motors down the M1—foreboding sodium lamps above, menacing headlamps behind, mesmerizing taillights ahead—so that the film expresses the disquiet and anxiety we’ve come to associate with that poet of urban anomie, J.G. Ballard (or his collaborator, David Cronenberg, who directed Knight’s Eastern Promises). Composer Dickon Hinchliffe (Winter’s Bone) provides an appropriately alienating electronic score—think Drive—which at times becomes overwhelming—but that’s the point. Like the constant, insistent beat, we can’t escape the inexorable repercussions of our choices.

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