After an ostensibly ordinary day at a Birmingham construction site, title character and foreman Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) hops into his luxury BMW with all the bells and whistles. We assume he is on his way home, but as soon as he departs, he arrives at a crossroads. Instead of turning left, a turn he has probably made countless times before, he turns right, and the rest of the film takes place on Locke’s 90-minute motorway drive to London; no more turns, no more crossroads. As the drama unfolds during his journey through a series of phone calls, we realize our hero made his tragic decision only two minutes into the film.
Through Locke’s first three calls, we learn that he is on his way to an unknown person; he is walking out on the biggest concrete pour in European history the next morning; and he will not be returning home to his wife and two sons that evening. We only hear the voices on the other end of the phone, so much of the emotional gravity in the film is projected on the face of our protagonist, much like the passing streetlights reflecting on Ivan’s face throughout his journey. And it’s a good thing Tom Hardy is up to the task of carrying the film with his performance, showing hints of a young—albeit English—Marlon Brando.
Mr. Hardy has a knack for inhabiting a character and fully forming him with distinct physical expressions and mannerisms. His Welsh-influenced accent gives Locke a soothing aplomb, which makes his sudden bursts of rage even more striking. But the best aspect of Mr. Hardy’s performance is in the non-verbal. Behind a grizzly beard and furrowed brow, he frequently stares through the rearview mirror at the career, family, and life he left behind only hours ago. He remains unflinching while attempting to put the pieces of his life back together, well aware what comes of the night is beyond his control, and I love how he rolls up his sleeves higher and higher throughout the night, as if his hands are getting dirtier and dirtier.
Locke is a character of logic, practicality, and consequence. Even after losing his job, he continues to call co-workers about the next day’s pour out of a sense of duty “for the concrete,” and after disclosing a heartbreaking revelation to his wife, he coolly asks, not begs, “Let’s find a practical next step.” Writer and director Steven Knight—also the scribe on Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises—often intertwines Locke’s character with concrete. The sense of foreboding is inescapable when the Locke, considered “the best man in England,” exclaims, “If the concrete at the base of my building is cracked, if it slips half an inch, cracks appear. Cracks appear, and they will grow and grow, and one day the whole thing will collapse!” The plot only falters when it attempts to introduce a level of back-story to Locke, but it does not prove to be a speed bump—ahem—in the overall narrative.
Knight’s directorial craft alleviates us from the physical claustrophobia of the vehicle, but his script so adeptly captures us within the growing emotional claustrophobia as Locke’s life implodes in front of us. It is an interesting contrast that a film with a narrative hinged on wireless, hands-free communication whilst driving could not be made a decade ago, yet Knight does not resort to any of the filmmaking accoutrements that technological advancement has produced. But Locke is not simply a tour de force in minimalism. Its careful construction is matched only by the best performance of Tom Hardy’s career, leaving us with the kind of movie that thrills and distresses at the same time. So much so that in the end we cannot decide which is the greater nightmare: the journey or the destination.