A man, clearly tired after a long day, takes off his work boots and hops into a car, a quite posh BMW SUV, and begins to drive from Birmingham to London. He calls home to let them know he won’t be able to make it back in time to watch the night’s big football match. He calls his boss, and his second in command at work, and explains to them that he will not be able to oversee the big concrete pour for the foundation of their skyscraper project the following morning. No one understands what he is doing or why. They ask him to turn around, plead for him to come back to work. He is undeterred, and continues driving.
It takes quite a bit of risk and confidence to hang the success of a film so thoroughly on the shoulders of one man the way Steven Knight has chosen to do with his new film Locke, though the shoulders of star Tom Hardy are certainly broad enough to carry the load. It is not an understatement to claim that Hardy carries this film, as he is the only actor who ever appears on screen for its entire length. The structure is daunting, requiring this one man to construct a life story in media res completely through phone conversations with unseen family members, coworkers, lovers. Context is nonexistent, but the backstory slowly bleeds out through these moments.
It’s frankly astonishing how quickly Hardy manages to clue the audience in about exactly who his character is and what he represents. It starts with the accent. Hardy has a long history of using accent work as an essential part of his character work, and Ivan Locke is no different. His lilting Welsh brogue certainly catches the ear, but his vocal cadence is where the magic lies. It only takes one phone conversation to get to the heart of who Ivan Locke is, regardless of context or backstory. He is a man of almost suffocating precision, a ceaselessly structured and exhaustively prepared individual who accounts for all sides of everything. His speech is measured and forceful, a tone that this both reassuring and disconcerting in its calm regardless of circumstances. As Locke’s sense of control slips further away from him, as his plans disintegrate and his heavily curated life crumbles around him, his sense of control never leaves his voice. By the end, he is trying to convince himself just as much as the person on the other end of the call.
Hardy has proven in the past that he is more than comfortable acting within a physically restrictive space. Whether in the tight corridors of Bronson or wearing Bane’s obscuring mask in The Dark Knight Rises that left him with nothing more than his eyes to emote, he is building a career on doing more with less. In Locke, he is once again limited, spending the entire film in a sitting position strapped into a chair, limited to the use of his upper body, arms and face. It is here that Hardy is able to bring in some of the doubt that Locke refuses to take over his voice, his one connection to the world outside his car, and all of that bottled emotion comes out through his hands and his eyes. It is a fully realized and masterful performance for a film that required it to have any chance of success. Of course, Hardy isn’t the only cast member despite being the only cast member seen on screen. Ruth Wilson and Andrew Scott are particularly good as arguably the most put-upon by Locke’s decision.
Beyond this magnetic performance from Hardy, Locke finds itself bolstered by its technical merits as well. Knight and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos are not going to change the cinematic world with their approach on the film’s sound and visual design, but they provide enough intrigue to ensure that the film does not falter or distract from Hardy’s performance. Heavy use of reflection and superimposed imagery serve to create a hypnotic, dreamlike atmosphere while keeping Locke feel separated and isolated from the rest of the world around him. The score is understated, a necessary approach for a film that is essentially all dialogue, and help build the tension without calling attention to itself.
With a fascinating premise, sure-handed direction from Steven Knight and an incredibly accomplished central lead performance from Tom Hardy, Locke is a provocative thriller that succeeds by bucking convention. A film with so little action should not be as tense as this film is, and it is a testament to the quality of all angles of the production that a predominantly real-time drive down a highway is as gripping as this film often is.