Riding shotgun with Hardy is an enthralling moviegoing experience that shouldn't be missed.
Nowadays, superheroes punching each other in the face and flipping over cars is the hottest ticket in Hollywood. Steven Knight’s Locke takes an actor, Tom Hardy, who’s no stranger to the comic book movie landscape, and dares to not punch him in the face. Virtually the entire movie, in fact, focuses on his face in medium close-up as he drives in a BMW at night on an urban motorway in England. A BMW that, in fact, does not flip over at any point in the movie. What is this? Witchcraft?!
No, Mr. Knight hasn’t employed the dark arts to conjure up this riveting piece of concentrated cinema. It is magical in it’s own way, though: After spending 99% of the film in a cramped space, watching Hardy gab on the phone and blow his runny nose periodically, not for one second does the experience stagnate or disengage. On the contrary, the film is utterly gripping.
Knight has reduced the modern notion of movie storytelling to its bare essentials, without sacrificing entertainment value in the slightest. There are twists, turns, and close calls throughout, but none of them have to do with Hardy swerving to avoid disaster on the road. They’re all figurative, emotional, and brilliantly written by Knight, primarily known in the industry as a screenwriter, though that may change quickly if Locke is any indication of his directorial capabilities.
Hardy plays Ivan Locke, a bearded, successful (judging by his slick ride) family man and construction manager who we at first see leaving a massive construction site (the most important project of his life) at night, his destination revealed gradually throughout the film. Locke is a man who operates on the calm–cool–collected side of the alpha-male mindset, priding himself on maintaining unwavering pragmatism in the face of adversity. When problems arise, he habitually reverts to seeking out “the next practical step.”
His even temper is pushed to its breaking point, however, as phone conversations with panicked co-workers, distressed family members, and a mysterious woman reveal that he’s perilously close to losing his career, home life, and reputation, all while driving on the two hour stretch from Birmingham to London. (Locke plays out in semi-real time, suggesting small passages of time through strategically implemented edits.)
At first, Locke seems well equipped to handle the cellular juggling act, assertively dictating orders to his fidgety co-worker Dolan (Andrew Scott) and easing the nerves of his anxious wife Katrina (Ruth Wilson) and the mystery woman (Olivia Colman) with soft-spoken, deliberate confidence. But as the calls grow in urgency and frequency, with Locke scrambling to resolve one issue while another freaked-out caller waits on the other line (signaled by a panic-inducing “call waiting” message), cracks begin to form in his rock-solid exterior and a menacing side of him begins to show. Locke’s world is hanging by a thread, and he’s trying very, very hard not to lose his grip. “The traffic is okay. It’ll be okay,” he says to Katrina in his easy Welsh accent, and one wonders if he’s trying to abate his wife’s hysteria or his own.
In films taking place entirely in enclosed spaces (Buried, Phone Booth), casting of the lead role is paramount, as their face is almost all we see. Hardy, with his deep, soulful eyes, and unique bone structure, is a perfect choice. He’s perhaps the best shape-shifter working in Hollywood today, and a lot of his chameleon-like versatility can be attributed to his fascination with off-kilter accents, of which he’s tried on many in his career. His vocal performances always elevate his onscreen presence to great heights, and the potential of his gift is maximized here. His Welsh accent is round and assuring, elegantly English, and yet also rough around the edges; his rolled r’s sound like the deep purr of a lion.
Hardy’s most astonishing flashes of brilliance happen when he makes us believe he’s going to erupt in a fit of rage at any moment…and then doesn’t, putting a cap on his rage at the very last second. In a standout exchange with Scott, the two engage in a furious debate, which instead of boiling over dissipates in a wonderful way: The two begin to laugh with and at each other because, well, there’s simply no where else for them to go. It’s smart, organic choices like this that make Locke much more than a close-quarters gimmick movie.
Visually, Knight rises to the main challenge the man-in-a-box format presents, keeping the film visually interesting top to bottom. The boozy, blurred lights that dance and swirl on the windows of the car are moody and expressionistic. It’s unavoidable that the film runs the danger of visual monotony, but Knight sidesteps this pitfall with the phone conversations, which transport us from the theater of the car to the theater of the mind as we visualize what’s going on on the other end of the line. It’s a brilliant device. Riding shotgun with an actor as mesmerizing as Hardy is an enthralling moviegoing experience that shouldn’t be missed.