The Intimate Genius of Locke

Steven Knight’s one-man film offers Tom Hardy one of his best roles to date.
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A man is driving in his car. The man’s name is Ivan Locke, the car is a BMW, and he is driving it along the M6 toward London. It is night. Locke uses his hands-free Bluetooth to call and leave a message for a woman named Bethan, who is evidently in a hospital. He calls and leaves another message for his boss, identified among his phone contacts only as “Bastard.” He calls home and tells his sons to let Mom know that he won’t be home to watch the soccer match with them after all. And then, for just shy of an hour and a half, he continues driving, all the while making and receiving calls: his boss, Gareth; his assistant, Donal; his wife, Katrina; his two sons, Eddie and Sean; the hospitalized woman, Bethan.

From these spare elements, writer/director Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises) and actor Tom Hardy have fashioned Locke, a microcosmic marvel of filmed theater. The movie features no high-speed chases or collisions, no gunshots or criminal conspiracies. Apart from a brief initial scene establishing that Locke is the foreman at an immense construction site, we see no faces other than his. Just Locke, the builder, trying to keep his life from falling apart with only a cell phone. Just Locke, the rationalist (the name is no coincidence), trying to hold chaos at bay.

The soccer match is not the only commitment that Locke’s unanticipated road trip will force him to miss. Early the next morning, 218 trucks will be arriving at his construction site carrying countless metric tons of concrete for the “biggest pour in Europe, outside the nuclear and military.” It is a testament to the fact that drama can be found anywhere that Knight (who himself worked in construction at one point) can invest the pour with such urgency: the road closures required for the trucks, the specific grade of concrete (C6, not C5), the structural integrity of the rebar. Diligent and dutiful, Locke tries to manage the preparations from afar, even as exigency piles upon exigency. “Donal,” he instructs his underling, “you don’t trust God when it comes to concrete.”

That’s all I will say of the plot, which is best allowed to unfold at its own pace. Knight’s screenplay is tight, meticulous, and infused with low-key wit, from the first word we see on Locke’s phone screen to the last sound we hear, from an early decision to turn right instead of left to the subtle mention of a half-sister later on.

Knight, who has only recently begun directing films, shot the picture straight-through in real time, twice a night for five consecutive nights, with Hardy in the car on the highway (it is, however, being carried on a truck) and the rest of the cast phoning him from a hotel. (Yes, the phone calls are all genuine.) From the resulting versions of the film, he spliced together the final cut, along the way incorporating happy coincidences encountered on the M6—a memorable delivery truck, a street sign pregnant with meaning. The unorthodox shooting regimen and compressed nature of the story and setting conspire to give the film a play-like intimacy, of which Hardy takes full advantage.

Knight wrote the film specifically for Hardy, and it is easy to see why. Wearing a beard and a Welsh accent that fits him as comfortably as a well-worn glove, the English actor offers a subtle yet riveting portrait in noble obstinacy. He is a man who has made a mistake and is trying to make it right again, attempting to bend his collapsing circumstances back into shape through sheer force of reason and patient will.

I’ve been anticipating Hardy’s emergence as a major star since his astonishing turn in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson in 2008. He subsequently stole every scene he was given in Inception and in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and seemed finally, as Bane in The Dark Knight Returns, to have given the breakthrough performance that would firmly establish him in the cinematic firmament. Yet stardom continues to elude him. (Perhaps next year’s Mad Max reboot…) Whatever the case, one can only be happy that he is free to star in a film like Locke. Though small in scale, it provides a perfect vehicle for his talents.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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