Whether or not you buy into Locke—an 85-minute movie in which Tom Hardy spends 99% of the time driving and talking on the phone—as a thrilling and daring cinematic experience will depend greatly on how much you’re able to invest in the character of Locke himself. Because while Locke strikes some interesting notes as an exercise in minimalist filmmaking, it fails to deliver the full-fledged symphony that would make it a true triumph.
As conceived by writer-director Steven Knight (screenwriter of Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises), Ivan Locke (Hardy) is certainly a sympathetic figure. Though also one all too familiar from numerous films, TV shows, books and plays from the last several decades. He’s a standup guy—a husband, a father, a competent professional with a solid high-level job in construction—and we meet him at the dramatic turning point when he could lose it all. He’s just embarked on a late-night road trip from Birmingham to London in the U.K., and through a series of phone calls with his wife (Ruth Wilson), sons (Tom Holland, Bill Milner), colleagues (Andrew Scott, Ben Daniels) and the woman he’s driving to see (Olivia Colman), we’ll discover the purpose of Locke’s journey and exactly what he’s risking.
Dramatic stuff to be sure, though far removed from the sort of nail-biting thriller narrative audiences have come to expect from the man-in-a-confined-space sub-genre (think: Ryan Reynolds in Buried, Colin Farrell in Phone Booth, etc.). There’s no one holding a gun to Locke’s head. He’s not racing to stop a bomb. His life is never in jeopardy. The suspense in Locke is strictly emotional: Can Locke hold on to both his family and his job while remaining true to himself as a man? We’re meant to root for Locke because he’s a good guy, and not the kind of morally dubious anti-hero you’d see heading up a cable TV drama. It’s a solid choice that makes Locke the film both traditional and still somewhat outside the zeitgeist, though not to an extent that makes Locke the man fully register as a particularly compelling character to study.
That’s where the unusual structure and savvy casting come into play. This is truly a one-man show—something relatively common on stage, less so on film—and writer-director Steven Knight finds an ideal collaborator in acclaimed actor and rising star Hardy. It’s crucial that Hardy has already established himself as both a brave and unpredictable screen presence with diverse roles in films such as Bronson and The Dark Knight Rises, and a charismatic leading man type even in supporting roles such as Inception and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. You can’t have a star vehicle without a star, and Knight needs someone in the driver’s seat who can keep viewers hooked with the subtlest shift of emotions.
In a way, Locke is perfectly timed counterprogramming to the looming summer blockbuster season. It’s the perfect movie for critics to single out and exclaim, “Look, you don’t need those fancy special effects and $200 million budgets! All you need is a good actor in a car!” While that may be true, you still need an interesting script, and by that measure Locke’s tank is only about half full. Knight’s writing is often a little too contrived and always a little too polished. It undermines all of Hardy’s carefully considered subtlety. And the storyline’s simple, straightforward structure is ultimately steamrolled by tractor-trailer sized metaphors and explicitly stated themes: a man on a moral journey, the ease with which one mistake can destroy a life and a career (just like the foundational cracks in a poorly constructed building), and the psychological scars of boys abandoned by their fathers (bolded, italicized and underlined by a few ill-advised scenes of Hardy railing against a non-existent passenger in the backseat).
Despite the choice to employ a rather inexplicable Welsh accent, Hardy’s performance is never less than genuine, which ensures even the most hackneyed moments are at least somewhat affecting. And the film’s hypnotic visual style, a sleek evocation of the experience of cruising down a highway at night, successfully conjures a seductive power similar to the night driving sequences in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Yet, all of it essentially boils down to a white guy dealing with a midlife crisis, and that’s a rather banal engine for such an eye-catching vehicle.
Director: Steven Knight
Writer: Steven Knight
Starring: Tom Hardy, (voices: Ruth Wilson, Olivia Colman, Andrew Scott, Tom Holland, Bill Milner, Ben Daniels)
Release Date: Apr. 25, 2014