The shadowy interior of a BMW, the sallow yellow glare of a streetlamp; road markings, overpasses. “You have a call waiting”.
As premises go, Locke’s is rivetingly simple: Ivan Locke, a foreman on a construction site, has had to make a last-minute trip from Birmingham down to London. The drive is just under two hours and plays out almost in real time – the film itself is a sleek 87 minutes – and result is as intimate a work of cinema as you’re ever likely to see.
Hardy’s calm, logical presence anchors the film; the lilting Welsh accent he affects gives Locke a strange sense of command. You see, now is the worst possible time he could have chosen to make a trip. It’s the night of the big pour on the site: there are a dozen calls to make, a million things to check, and the only one left in charge is the finicky Donal (Andrew Scott), Locke’s boss, Gareth (Ben Daniels) – nicknamed “Bastard” on caller ID – is about to blow his top.
There’s also his wife, Katrina (Ruth Wilson), and his two sons to deal with; the football is on and she’s cooking sausages. Locke hasn’t even told her he’s making a trip. The whole thing is an emotional car crash waiting to happen. Nevertheless, Locke has made a decision to be there for Bethan (Olivia Colman), a woman he hardly knows, and it’s one he intends to stick by.
In what is essentially a series of phone calls – you can play the game, “Guess who’s calling now” – Locke reveals an amazing depth of character. This is Hardy’s film: never off-screen, totally unaccompanied, there’s nowhere for him to hide as an actor, and he pulls it off magnetically. Locke is driving away from his work, from his home, from the secure, comfortable life he knows, towards a future responsibility he doesn’t want but feels the need to take care of.
Ivan Locke is portrayed as a solid, reliable human being trying to do the right thing, to keep it together on the work and home fronts even as his life falls apart. Most of all, though, he keeps on driving. Narratively speaking, there’s not an ounce of fat on Locke’s frame. Hardy’s one-man virtuoso performance may recall Buried or Phone Booth, but the film is better than either in both its simplicity and refusal to play up to the drama. Locke just lets it simmer.
In conversations with his wife, we learn that Locke is a man whose footprints are literally set in stone: he is decisive, rigid even, he keeps moving forward no matter the cost. As a literal road movie, Locke feels episodic but never pat: Steve Knight’s smooth direction and insightful script ensures the action keeps flowing. As “It’s OK” becomes Locke’s mantra to others, so it becomes ours.
He may seethingly address the ghost of his absentee father in the back seat, an unnecessarily stagey movie and the film’s one misstep – a chance to monologue at the expense of subtlety – but Locke feels like a man to believe in. Even in his absence, he works to keep his colleagues and his family calm, to get them through the night, refusing to compromise his integrity.
Locke is thrilling, relaxed and authoritative, pacey yet unhurried; totally naturalistic, it lets the subtext do the heavy lifting. Ultimately a tale of redemption, of a composed man trying to make up for a mistake, the film has an emotional foundation that is solid all the way through – thematic concrete. Locke may be just a man in a car but the film turns that into something truly compelling. In the end, Locke is a film that takes its own protagonist’s advice and benefits hugely from it.