(Tom Hardy, Bill Milner, Ruth Wilson, Ben Daniels, Olivia Colman, et al / R / 84 mins)
Overview: Written and directed by Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things), Locke tells the adrenaline-fueled story of one man's frantic race against time. Tom Hardy and Tom Holland star in a film produced by Paul Webster and Guy Heeley.
Verdict: Apart from a brief nighttime preface at a huge construction site, Steven Knight's 'Locke' takes place entirely inside a car! That would seem to guarantee a claustrophobic experience, even though the film is only 85 minutes long and it's a very nice car, a BMW sedan with all the latest electronic bells and whistles.
Yet claustrophobia is the last thing you're likely to feel as car and driver travel through the night along an English motorway on an urgent mission. Ivan Locke is a character of consequence, a construction manager who is simultaneously coming apart and pulling the jagged pieces of himself together.
And Tom Hardy, the actor who plays him, is by turns spellbinding, seductive, heartbreaking, explosive and flat-out thrilling. At a time when the studios are spending vast sums of money on a bigger-is-better aesthetic, here's a chamber piece with the impact of high drama.
The narrative comes packaged with a high-tech sheen. Other cars' headlights and taillights turn into colorful abstractions that play on Locke's face like the patterns on Dave's visor in '2001: A Space Odyssey.' Inside the car, the instrument panel glows a sultry orange and the navigation system maps the route in pastel blue when the display isn't switching to a succession of phone calls that are constantly interrupted by the modern madness of call-waiting. (Haris Zambarloukos did the gorgeous cinematography. The film was edited by Justine Wright.)
Connectivity is what makes the drama possible, and, not to worry, it's technically legal: This driver may be distracted beyond measure, but he uses his car's hands-free communication system to reach out to people he needs, and to field their frantic responses. What makes the drama powerful is the quality of the writing, which ranges from a flinty concision worthy of Samuel Beckett to spasms of majestic rage. Mr. Knight has written fine screenplays in the past—among them 'Dirty Pretty Things,' 'Eastern Promises' and 'Amazing Grace.' This one, though, is a new departure. Starting with a concept that might have proved little more than a stunt, he gives us a life in full, hurtling toward a crossroads.
One of Locke's first phone calls concerns concrete. He has other things on his mind: the purpose of his trip—more about that later — and, by extension, the purpose of his life. But concrete looms large in his profession, and he has made a grave decision to drive away from his current project at a critical juncture, just before the foundation is to be poured. At the break of dawn, more than 200 concrete trucks from all over England will start to converge on the site for what he calls "the biggest pour in Europe." Instead of being there to orchestrate the preparations, he must manage as best he can by remote control.
This is ominously out of character for a man who has been, for his adoring family and admiring colleagues, a paragon of control. Locke tries to compensate for his lapse with preternatural calm, reassuring a stunned assistant in a soothing, Welsh-accented voice. Mr. Hardy, who is English, has said he borrowed the accent from Richard Burton. That's a formidable act to follow, but he's equal to the challenge. What's more, the choice of a Welsh accent heightens the unfolding drama by creating tension between Locke's lulling musicality and the loss of control that threatens to overwhelm him.
Locke is as eloquent about concrete as he is obsessed with making the pour go flawlessly. When his assistant questions the need for heroic measures, Locke gives the man a honeyed tongue lashing: "You do it for the piece of sky we are stealing with our building. You do it for the air that will be displaced. And most of all," he adds with eerie elation, "you do it for the f**king concrete, because it is delicate as blood."
That's exceptional writing, and, driven by Mr. Hardy's magnificent performance, it gets so much better that I can't resist quoting another savory chunk of it. Locke insists to his assistant, with rising passion, that every truckload of concrete be held to the highest industry standard. "And you know why? Because eventually, when my building is complete, it will be 55 floors high, and it will weigh 2,223,000 metric tons. Okay? My building will alter the water table, and squeeze granite. It will be visible from 20 miles away. At sunset it will cast a shadow that will be a mile long. If the concrete at the base of my building is cracked, if it slips half an inch, cracks appear. Cracks appear, and they will grow and grow, and one day the whole thing will collapse. You make one mistake, one little f**king mistake, and the whole world comes crashing down around you!"
So what does all of that say about Ivan Locke? For one thing, that he's the sort of man you'd want to have testing your concrete if you were building a high-rise. For another, that he is given to grandiosity, along with poetry —'my building,' indeed. And, in the context of this dense tale, that he is terrified to find cracks in the foundation of his life after making one fateful mistake.
The nature of his mistake, and the reason for his choosing to leave the construction site at the very moment he's most needed, is the essence of the film. Someone else needs this good and tortured man, and that need outweighs the tonnage of his building. In one sense, the story is anti-dramatic, since Locke has already made his choice before his journey begins; he will do the right thing by going where he must, at whatever cost to his family and career. But he has made his choice in a vacuum, out of a doomed sense of duty. The true drama of his life turns on filling the vacuum with feeling.
Here again, Mr. Knight is exquisitely skillful in charting his pilgrim's emotional progress. Locke's language at the outset is clinical, precise, precariously detached and perfectly bloodless. Yet he is beset, at several points along the way, by a demon from his past—an apparition in his rearview mirror—and he responds with astonishing ferocity. These responses — anguished soliloquies, really — may be conventionally Freudian in form, but they're stunning in substance. And far from representing detours on Locke's spiritual route, they give him a bridge to his redemption, which involves another kind of connectivity—loving connections that make life worth living.
The film held me rapt from the first frame to the last. Mr. Knight gives his script the direction it deserves—flawless work in both departments—and Mr. Hardy, in the only onscreen role, turns a small film into a big one. (Other actors, all of them excellent, are heard over the phone.) For quite a few years now, and certainly since his appearance in Christopher Nolan's 2010 "Inception," Tom Hardy has been such a force on the big screen that it was frustrating to find him beefed up, masked and unrecognizable as the villainous Bane in Mr. Nolan's 'The Dark Knight Rises.' There's no problem recognizing him this time, though. As the man behind the wheel, he goes for glory and attains it.