Locke is a one-man show, and for it to work, you need an actor who you can live with for ninety minutes without getting bored or frustrated. Luckily, writer-director Steven Knight’s quiet yet urgent film has Tom Hardy, an actor who seems to have mastered looking and sounding different in almost every film he has made. In Locke he plays a construction manager, Ivan Locke, a Welshman proud of his job (he is professional, diligent, and industrious) and adoring of his family. On the eve of the biggest moment in his career, he gets in his car and drives into the night and makes a few phone calls, the first of which is to his boss to inform him that he won’t be at the building site the following morning for the pouring of the concrete. I won’t say what causes him to make the choices he has made, as I don’t wish to spoil this very pleasing, tightly-written, brilliantly-acted and very well-made film. You learn the basic facts in the first fifteen minutes, and it is a testament to Knight’s script that the story of this man’s life, in many ways a very ordinary tale of an ordinary person, keeps you riveted without any sudden second-act turns or surprises. There are no car crashes or hitchhikers or random enounters at petrol stations to break the setting or the tone.
With the exception of a couple of shots at the beginning and the end, the entire film takes place in the car, a very nice-looking BMW, with Hardy talking on his hands-free device to his boss, his wife, his son, his junior at the job-site, and a few others. He doesn’t listen to music or the news. He has work to do, and in the beginning you may wonder how he can remain so calm in the face of several crises happening at once (especially when people on the phone are yelling abuse at him.)
There have been other films like it: Phone Booth springs immediately to mind, but also Castaway, 127 Hours and Buried. Locke has a lot in common with those films, but is its own beast. It would work well as a stage piece with one actor sitting in a chair talking to others who were in the wings. It works very well as a radio play (I played it a second time with my back to the screen, and it’s still captivating.) But it is meant to be seen as a film: in the confines of the car we see Hardy in close-up, and so we can see his frustration, his joy, his sadness, and his anger on his face, lit (it seems) by nothing other than the lights of the dashboard, the occasional passing set of headlights, and the yellowish orange glow of motorway lights.
Setting it at night is a smart choice: travelling in darkness is very different to taking a trip in broad daylight, and if you want to think that this is Locke’s journey into the heart of darkness, or into the underworld, you could do so; there is a lot of talk about what will happen when the sun rises, about how everything will be okay. (Locke repeats the phrase ‘the traffic is okay’ many times, and he is trying to convince himself as much as anybody else.) His name, of course, is no accident. He has locked his life down; he is something of a control freak, a careful man who probably plans every moment of his day, and who leaves nothing to chance (except for one crucial decision he made a while ago, which is the reason he is on the motorway in the first place.) His name also evokes the Enlightnment philosopher John Locke, whose idea of the Self is grounded in experience. Ivan Locke is the sum of all his life experiences, and as a builder he knows that a good foundation is crucial (no spoilers, but the entire film is about the importance of a good foundation.) There are a lot of conversations about concrete (you will learn a lot about concrete watching this film.)
I think it is also significant that Knight and Hardy chose to make Locke Welsh: the voice is soothing (it needs to be because Locke has to mollify a lot of people.) But there is a stubborness and anger beneath Hardy’s gentle lilting tone; this is not a cajoling boyo who will burst into song at any moment, but a proud, loving, kind, but somewhat resentful man (think of the steely resolve of Richard Burton or Anthony Hopkins.)
The voices on the telephone include Andrew Scott, Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, and Ben Daniels.
Verdict: Four Concrete Pours out of Five