I saw Steven Knight’s Locke at one of those press screenings where the distributor thought it worth their while to send a representative to get the critical response. I have never really understood the practice and hate being expected to spit out an automatic review a few seconds after the lights come up. However, my knee-jerk response: “Absolutely compelling, but I’m damned if I know how to sell it,” is still true, and, yes, Locke is good enough that I would like to sell it to you. I think people should see it. Oh, I can tell you that it’s garnered 123 positive reviews (vs. 16 negative ones) on Rotten Tomatoes — even though I detest the idea that art can be reduced to percentages. But as soon as I tell you that the film consists of 80 minutes of Tom Hardy (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) driving while talking on his hands-free cell phone — other characters are heard but never seen — at least half of you have probably ruled it out. And I can’t blame you. I felt the same way until I saw it. It sounds deadly dull, and it sounds like a harebrained stunt. It may be something of a stunt, but it’s not a harebrained one, and it is anything but dull. Hardy plays Ivan Locke, a construction manager in a job he excels at and loves doing. The film takes place on the evening before his biggest job — one of historically noteworthy size. He also has a wife and two children he dotes on and with whom he’s supposed to spend the evening watching a football (soccer) match on TV. But all this changes because of a phone call — a phone call that causes him to make a sudden drive from Birmingham to London, shunting the big job off on an ill-prepared assistant, angering his boss, disappointing his sons and placing him in a position where he has to confess something to his wife. He realizes he expects to be fired, and he knows his life will never be the same. He’s driving to be with a woman he hardly knows and for whom he cares nothing, but she is having — prematurely — the baby he fathered. His sense of doing what he thinks is right is strong enough that he’s doing this. His oft-repeated phrase is, “I’ve made my decision,” but we only learn the reasons behind that decision over the course of the movie. If you want more plot than that, you’ll have to see the film.
I know this doesn’t sound exciting, but it turns out to be one of the most suspenseful and emotionally complex films of the year. No, you won’t forget that you’re watching the kind of one-man show that might seem more at home onstage or as a radio play, but writer Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises) has — as both writer and director — crafted a compelling drama that he presents in a startlingly cinematic manner. The choice of staying with Locke and not cutting away to the dramas occurring on the other end of that phone may sound restrictive, but it isn’t. If anything, staying with this man while his life unravels and he tries to hold it (and himself) together, turns out to be shocking in its intensity. Knight also makes it an almost real-time, increasingly hallucinatory trip through the night — an always fascinating world of glowing lights, reflections, double exposures, rain-streaked windows and abstract patterns of out-of-focus car and street lights.
At the center of it all is Tom Hardy’s riveting performance — a performance some have likened to the pre-booze-soaked Richard Burton (in part because of Welsh accent he affects). But it really isn’t a performance that invites comparisons, nor does it need them. Hardy comes across as a man of barely contained volatility, a man so used to being in control of himself and his emotions that he has come to believe he can will things right. But as events progress and things start coming apart, the cracks start showing. There are a couple of moments where he cuts loose with an epithet that are as jarring as any shock effect you’ve ever seen. At the same time, he retains, without asking for it, a degree of sympathy. This may sound very bleak and even nihilistic, but it’s ultimately not at all. It’s also very likely the opposite of what you probably think it is. Rated R for language throughout.
Playing at Carolina Cinemas.