★★★★ (out of 5 stars)
What kind of person are you? What kind of person do you want to be? For Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) those two questions are the defining features of his life. As his name implies, Locke has carefully maintained a sense of order and control. A loving husband and father and respected construction foreman, he is patient, reliable and conscientious – exactly the kind of man you would want your daughter to marry or could count on to oversee the biggest concrete pour in European history.
But after five minutes riding alongside him, as he suddenly and inexplicably drives away from the construction site, we notice the cracks. It starts with cold symptoms and then, over the next hour or so, disintegrates into the worst night of Ivan’s life. Why is this otherwise rock-solid man abandoning his post? I won’t ruin the plot except to say that Locke made a mistake and is now determined to make things right. Except for the opening minute of the film, writer-director Steven Knight confines us in Locke’s car as the even-tempered Welshman struggles to keep his life from collapsing through the sheer force of soft-spoken practicality, honesty and will.
It’s a ballsy conceit, staging a one-man, real-time performance in the claustrophobic comforts of a BMW, but Knight’s script is taut and tense, ramping up the emotional stress and parceling out details and complications with a surgeon’s skill. He reveals Ivan to us through the frantic phone calls he fields via Bluetooth from his boss, wife, sons, underlings and others.
Though he’s left the construction site, Ivan is determined to see the job through by guiding his anxious, less-than-reliable subordinate Donal (voiced by Andrew Scott) through the logistical and political intricacies of pouring a skyscraper foundation. This turns out to be no easy task when unforeseen conflicts and complications arise. Then, of course, there’s Ivan’s hysterical boss (Ben Daniels), who must be managed even though it means his career is all but finished. And if that weren’t enough, there are the calls from home. Ivan’s sons wonder why their dad won’t be home in time to watch an important soccer match, and why mum is in the bathroom crying.
Each call becomes another piece to the jigsaw puzzle that is Ivan Locke, giving us a fuller picture of both the man and his situation. And while his determination to do the “right thing” seems almost pathological, Knight keeps us fully engaged and invested. It was probably unnecessary for him to include Locke’s angry on-the-nose diatribes against his imaginary father, but Locke is an otherwise convincing and dramatic descent into personal hell.
None of it would work, however, without Hardy, who delivers a performance that can only be described as revelatory. Though he’s distinguished himself in showy, larger-than-life roles (Bronson, Bane, etc.), here he plays a modest, dependable, almost elegant man who’s used to soothing the volatility of others with calm patience and certainty. As he’s pulled into an emotional abyss of his own making, those attributes are tested and tortured to the breaking point, and Hardy articulates the entire process with precise and understated grace. Voice, facial expressions, silent reflection – Hardy invests so much honesty into every moment that you can’t take your eyes off him, which is important because there isn’t much else to look at during Locke’s 85-minute running time.
Knight shot the film from beginning to end in real time on England’s M6 over six consecutive nights. He had three cameras mounted on the car to capture the action and had the supporting cast phone in from a hotel to make the calls genuine to Hardy’s reality. It’s an unconventional shooting process, to be sure, but Knight maintains a strong hand on the mesmerizing pacing, tone and rhythm – only occasionally (and unnecessarily) forcing things outside to create a wider and busier visual palette.
Locke is cinematic storytelling distilled to its essentials: one man in one setting making decisions that will forever impact his future. It’s an evening filled with suspense and heartache, but in the end it’s Tom Hardy alone who makes us care about how things will ultimately play out.