Over the past three years, Tom Hardy has battled Batman and a dialogue-muffling mask in The Dark Knight, bulked up to play a heartsick MMA fighter in Warrior, and navigated multiple dream layers and some upstaging effects in Inception. But Locke, which opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, April 25, before expanding to more cities, offers the actor his toughest challenge yet: Turn an hour-and-a-half of driving while making phone calls into a compelling film.
Written and directed by Steven Knight (Eastern Promises), Locke is of the same high-concept template that yielded Ryan Reynolds’ Buried. It’s a one-man show in which Hardy is joined only by voices via phone, but it’s not (at least for the most part) an indulgent acting exercise. Nor is it boring, despite the minimalist premise. Hardy and Knight have created a window into the life of a man who’s determined to do the right thing in the aftermath of a rare mistake, even if it costs him everything else in his life.
And Locke doesn’t just involve driving; it involves the most boring sort of driving — on the freeway, at night, with nothing visible beyond the road. Ivan Locke, an English foreman, leaves his construction site in Birmingham to travel to London via the M5. The film is rainy, dark, and it takes place in the yellowy cast of the street lights, but the traffic — as Ivan assures himself and others in his mellow Welsh accent with its rounded vowels — will be fine. He’s got somewhere to be, but he’s being as responsible about hurrying there as possible, because Ivan, we’re soon to learn, is responsible to a fault.
As it turns out, he is rushing to meet a woman named Bethan (Olivia Colman, who, like everyone else in the cast besides Hardy, is only heard), with whom he briefly worked and had a cheerless one-night stand while away from home on a job. Ivan loves his wife Katrina (Ruth Wilson) and his two sons and describes the discretion with a stoic remove. They were both lonely, according to his confession to his stunned spouse, and Bethan struck him as particularly vulnerable and in need of connection. But whether or not it was the act of pity that he claims, Ivan got this near-stranger pregnant, and she decided to have the baby. And, out of a sense of duty, he’s rushing to London to be by her side during the labor, because she doesn’t have anyone else and because his father abandoned him when he was young.
Knight’s script unfolds these details over several calls, along with a parallel problem involving the giant concrete pour Ivan’s abandoned at the site, through which he tries to guide his increasingly stressed out underling Donal (Andrew Scott) while fielding irate calls from his boss Gareth (Ben Daniels). Construction details may not sound like the height of drama, but Locke turns them into something suspenseful by attaching them to the protagonist’s conviction that he will get the job done correctly, regardless of whether or not his leaving gets him fired. Ivan’s solidity as a person is linked to the satisfaction he takes from his involvement in building things, but the film also suggests he’s addicted to control, that the other side of his commitment to being at the birth and making sure the concrete’s right is a desire to make sure anything that he’s helped create, whether a skyscraper or a new life, goes as he sees fit.
Hardy’s proven himself a riveting actor in past roles, but Ivan is a fascinating character for him in his steadiness, in how he methodically blows up everything he has, exuding distress but never letting it come through to the people he tries to pacify on the phone.
The only misstep in the film is the decision to have Ivan occasionally address his dead dad as if he were sitting in the backseat, waiting for his son to repeat his mistakes. It’s wildly more theatrical than the rest of the movie, as if Locke suddenly became a one-man play instead of a film that, despite its stylized scenario, is grounded in realism. But those moments are few and far between. The camera otherwise circles Ivan to peer in at him from inside the car and out, from the side-view mirror to his profile as he makes his way down the road with a doomed nobility. Locke turns a lean character study into a kind of thriller, and that’s an impressive achievement for both its filmmaker and its star.