Like Gravity and All Is Lost, Steven Knight‘s Locke (A24, 4.25) is a gripping survival story about an isolated protagonist (in this instance an industrial construction foreman played by Tom Hardy) grappling with a series of intense, life-threatening challenges…tough terms, face up to them, do or die. But Locke is a much more engrossing drama than Gravity and the exact verbal opposite of the all-but-silent Lost. We’re only three months into 2014 but Locke is easily one of the best films I’ve seen thus far, and I’m including Captain America: The Winter Soldier and those eight Sundance films that I admired.
The 85-minute running time happens entirely inside a BMW SUV on the motorway between Birmingham and London, and it’s all about bluetooth phone calls. Hardy is behind the wheel the entire time. But what pushes the film along is the stuff of any compelling drama — character, tough decisions, adult pressures, guilt, tragedy, trauma and suspenseful twists and turns.
Ivan Locke has been married for a couple of decades to Katrina (Ruth Wilson), and they have two teenaged sons, Eddie (Tom Holland) and Sean (Bill Milner), whom he’s promised to watch a soccer game with. He’s also expected to manage a huge concrete pour on a large office-building project he’s overseeing the next morning. But he’s on his way to London to be with Bethan (Olivia Colman), a somewhat older woman he had a one-night stand with a few months back and has impregnated, and who is expected to give birth that evening.
Even though he doesn’t love Bethan and wants very much to keep his marriage intact, and even though his employer freaks when he says he can’t be at the construction site when the concrete will be poured, Locke feels he has to be with Bethan, a somewhat lonely woman who has no one else to stand by her. He feels it’s right thing, and it is…but what a cost. Yes, the deck is stacked against him (and also, when you think about it, Bethan) but this is not a rambling John Cassevetes film. It’s about forces gathering and unfortunate timing and chickens coming home to roost. Everything else, Locke has decided, will have to wait or be handled by others. This is it.
I would have handled Locke’s situation a little bit differently (it’s one thing to face up to responsibility but there’s no way I’d give my employer reason to fire me with everything else falling apart), but you can’t help but respect him for making a tough decision and sticking to his guns. And you can’t not be impressed by the calm and measured way he deals with several strategic issues and situations, including the handling of an alcoholic, somewhat irresponsible assistant who needs to finesse some problems concerning the Birmingham pour.
Locke might sound a bit confining or even boring, but it’s not — trust me. This is not some arcane aesthetic exercise. It’s not a stunt film. It’s a story about a real guy coping with pressure and responsibility and love and adulthood and serious, real-deal consequences and trying to man up and do the right thing without allowing everything else to fall into a heap on the floor.
Locke is about minimalism, of course, but it generates story tension in a way that feels similar to Alfred Hitchcock‘s Lifeboat — the dialogue and the decisions made by several characters (even if they’re all offscreen except for Locke) have your utmost attention, and you care very much about how the story will shake out.
Every so often Locke lets his anger out at his late deadbeat dad, whom he imagines is sitting in the back seat. Obviously his determination to do the right thing by Bethan is about wanting to defy his father’s legacy. But if Bethan has no one but Locke to hold her hand during birth, who else and what else doesn’t she have? Locke more or less tells his wife that Bethan is having the child because little else has worked out in her life, but having a baby is a very bad way to deal with a lack of fulfillment or a sense of aimlessness. And with Locke not looking to be her partner (although Bethan is apparently presuming he loves her), what kind of support is she going to have, especially being a somewhat older woman and all? It’s a bit of an odd situation in that having the child doesn’t sound like the greatest idea. But Locke’s basic decency wins you over. You want to see everything come out right.
Dozens of elements went into Locke but it mostly works because of Knight’s superior script and Hardy’s quiet, authoritative, carefully phrased performance. It’s his best yet, I feel. This kind of less always feels like a lot more.
If Locke had been written and directed by an American, Hardy’s character would have gotten into a major car accident sometime during Act Three. A real wham-banger, I mean. If at all possible, American films always try to include shattered glass, bent metal, tire marks and blood-soaked hair. Thank God it was made by a Brit.
The trailer, by the way, suggests Locke has a tempestuous, hair-trigger temperament — that’s bullshit. That’s just a trailer editor trying to jack things up in order to jack things up.