By Daniel Barnes
*Opening today at the Tower Theater in Sacramento.
Basically a one-man stage play with superimposed images and changes in screen direction, writer-director Steven Knight’s tense Locke has “gimmick movie” potential stamped all over it. That the film only occasionally shows those roots is a great testament to the perfectly measured lead performance by Tom Hardy, as well as Knight’s efficient direction and compact screenplay.
In an extended glorification of distracted driving, Knight puts us in the passenger seat for an 80-minute car ride with Hardy’s Ivan Locke, a responsible and even-keeled family man, as he makes and receives the calls that will reduce his perfect life to rubble. On the eve of the biggest concrete pour in European history, the site manager Locke is driving to London to be with his mistress as she prematurely gives birth to his child, a fact he is only now relaying to his devastated wife, clueless son, and outraged boss.
Seated before a dashboard console with more lights and buttons than the deck of the Starship Enterprise, Locke coolly attempts to conduct his personal and professional business (“I have a list of things,” he says early in the drive) over the speaker phone of his BMW SUV. We never leave Locke, only hearing the disembodied voices of his family and co-workers, all of whom are shocked by Locke’s seedy revelations, uncharacteristic behavior (“I’m not at all like myself.”), and seeming recklessness. However, Locke is completely calculating in his actions, and despite the fact that he is rushing to a pregnant woman’s bedside, he never once exceeds the speed limit.
Yet he also feels compelled to repeatedly remind people, including the lonely and agitated mistress, that he can control everything except for the traffic. Locke is a film about a controlled man losing all control, and the insistent calm of Hardy’s performance conceals a roiling inner life of anguish, self-loathing and doubt. In perhaps the only narrative flourish that categorically does not work, Knight allows us to glimpse that inner life through Locke’s occasional monologues with the spirit of his deadbeat father.
It’s a heavyhanded tactic that has the reek of a rookie director, and that sort of easy and obvious symbolism unfortunately permeates the film. The number of metaphors regarding concrete alone, from the solid “foundation” Locke fears will crumble both in his building and in his marriage, to the plodding “cement shoes” mentioned by Locke’s wife, are almost incalculable. As such, Locke feels a little artificial, and the film is much more effective as a self-contained acting exercise than as a fully realized cinematic world.
But what a self-contained acting exercise! Tom Hardy is best known for his bellicose and gloriously outsized turns in films like Bronson and The Dark Knight Rises, but here he buries that fury under a splintering veneer of self-control. It’s brilliant and complex work, with Hardy bringing the same measure of obsessive detail to his performance that Locke brings to his construction site preparation.
Throughout the film, Locke clings to the belief that he can repair the pieces of his life – even after getting fired, Locke continues to walk an unqualified underling through the site preparation; even after his wife dismisses him, Locke assures his son he will be welcomed home again; even after denying any love for the mistress, he steadfastly journeys to her bedside. That is a lot of character business to unpack in the span of an 80-minute car ride, and the fact that Hardy allows us to feel the tragedy of Locke, rather than the overstuffed silliness, is what ultimately makes the film work.