(Editor’s note: This review was originally published on October 21st, 2013, but I’m republishing it now because Locke opens today in limited release.)
Locke may be considered one of the best films showcased at the London Film Festival this year primarily because it’s such a surprising achievement in contemporary British cinema.
The plot is simply this: Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) drives a car. No other characters appear and Locke does not leave the vehicle for the entirety of the film. But there’s far more to this exercise in minimalism that meets the eye. Locke is taking what seems like a routine drive in Birmingham. But as he makes and answers calls via his dashboard Bluetooth device, we learn there’s nothing ordinary about this night.
He calls his wife Cynthia (Ruth Wilson) and two sons (Tom Holland and Bill Milner) to tell them he won’t be home to watch the “big match,” then informs his co-workers (Andrew Scott and Ben Daniels) that he will be unable to oversee a massive concrete pour that’s set to take place the following morning. It’s clear from their reactions that his presence is integral to a pricey skyscraper being built. But Locke clearly has somewhere else to be and after he receives a frantic call from Bethan (Olivia Colman), we learn he’s driving to London to be by the side of a woman who’s about to give birth to his child.
In one of many candid phone calls, he tearfully explains to his wife that while drunk one night, he slept with an older woman who was an assistant on one of his construction projects. From there, the further he drives, the more his life falls apart. As relationships with his family and boss becomes uncertain, Locke delivers anger-fueled rants towards his neglectful father, who he imagines is in the backseat. It’s a premise that could have easily crumbled, and yet it all comes together as smoothly as cement being laid over brick.
David Cronenberg attempted a similar challenge with his polarizing head-scratcher Cosmopolis in 2012, in which the protagonist (Robert Pattinson) is in a limo for all but 20 minutes of the film. The coffin-set thriller Buried in 2010 featured a similar concept and was also met with a divided response. What saves Locke from a similar fate is director Steven Knight’s screenwriting skills. A film with a single setting and a solitary character needs to have an impeccable script – and Knight has certainly written one. The Eastern Promises scribe made his directorial debut earlier this year with Redemption (previously known as Hummingbird), a gritty thriller starring Jason Statham that failed to get the attention it deserved.
Of course, Hardy is the central reason the film shines. Not many actors can carry a movie for 84 minutes entirely on their own, and even fewer could do so in a way that leaves a lasting impression. Hardy manages to assure that we are on his side from the get-go, regardless of the grave mistake he’s made. His face registers several emotions at once while his tear-stained eyes tellingly convey sorrow, rage, and despair. While the actor has headlined his fair share of box office bait, most notably The Dark Knight Rises, some of his most riveting work has been in more stripped down projects like Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson. Locke cements (no pun intended) Hardy’s status as one of Hollywood’s most promising talents.
The largely ambiguous conclusion leaves Locke’s fate open to interpretation, but manages to do so in a way that feels satisfying rather than frustrating. It’s yet another testament to Knight’s excellent screenplay, and this film should get him a lot of attention for his work behind the camera as well.
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