May 15, 2014


The secret weapon of Steven Knight’s Locke is that the physical journey to London that its protagonist, Ivan Locke, is embarking on is not a metaphor.  It’s easy to imagine a writer gleefully penning an emotional journey that can mirror the literal one, but Knight wisely sidesteps the hacky temptation in favour of something far more interesting: this is a film about dealing with the arrival.  Before the film begins, Locke’s decision has been made, and we avoid a lengthy morality play on “what should be done” in favour of the probably far more interesting “how do we deal with what’s been done” scenario. 

If anyone knows anything about Locke, it’s that it takes place entirely in a car and we only ever see one character, the titular man played by Tom Hardy.  The film consists of a series of telephone conversations while he’s driving to London for the birth of his bastard son, the product of a one-night lapse in judgment that was done, according to him, out of pity more than anything.  The decision to leave his job as a cement supervisor the night before the biggest pour in European history (outside of military and nuclear, he reminds us) has essentially blown up his professional career.  He also leaves his wife and children behind, who are expecting him home to watch a game, and the former of which has not yet been told of the affair and the baby.  The woman has gone into labour early, and it forces Locke’s hand in a way, but it’s not hard to imagine a way he could have salvaged at the very least his job.  There’s a fairly rich texture to Locke, a seemingly simple man who favours rational problem solving over emotional flights of fancy, and though he has significant father issues (one of the few missteps here are the sequences where he angrily talks to his dead father – played by an empty seat in the back of the car), there’s a bloody-minded moral rigidness that informs his behaviour.  Indeed, while his boss, underlings, wife, and mistress are all blowing up he always maintains an air of calm in his interaction, hoping to solve the problems he’s caused in a reasonable, controlled manner.

This calm can also be an overrational coldness, as when his mistress (voiced by Olivia Coleman) is beginning the process of a very painful labour and asks if he loves or hates her, and he replies quite matter-of-factly that he doesn’t know her, and there’s little indication that he wants to. As his wife (Ruth Wilson) is locked away in the bedroom and throwing up in the bathroom after hearing the news, he’s insistent on working on a “reasonable next step” to try to fix their relationship.  All the while there’s chaos at the worksite and he has to talk a drunk underling, Donal (Andrew Scott), through the process of fixing the issues and getting ready for the pour in the morning.

Knight’s visual schema is fairly straightforward.  He wants to keep it interesting so he uses a bevy of angles and edits as well as cutaways and particular attention to the way lights reflect and move off the windows of the car.  It’s hardly the masterful, sit-and-observe method of the pre-eminent director of people-in-cars, Abbas Kiarostami, but this film is presented more as a suspense film than an observational character study, even if the material somewhat works against it.  The film, then, hangs on Hardy, and he’s up for the task and then some.  There are moments of frustration and cracking on his face that he can’t let show through his voice when he’s on the phone, and Hardy also realizes that there’s just enough meat to the character to highlight the paradox of a man throwing out his responsibilities to take responsibility.  There isn’t really any great reckoning or showy, big scenes – this is a far cry from Philip Baker Hall’s turn as Nixon in that other great one-man-movie, Secret Honor – so Hardy relies on the difficulty of maintaining control without ever losing it.

If it feels a bit slight, it’s probably because we’re trained to expect big stories and big emotions, especially given the building, intense style of Knight’s direction.  Really, though, this is a small story about a huge event in a man’s life, and the ways in which he must maintain some moral code to live with himself, whether that’s right or wrong.  A gimmick film it might be, but that’s a means to an end and not the end itself, and that’s the most important thing any gimmick film needs to understand.


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