Review: Locke (2013)

Steven Knight’s Locke is primarily an exercise in acting. In that restricted focus lays its strengths and weaknesses. At the centre of the film is Tom Hardy’s Ivan Locke, a concrete foreman driving the M6 motorway to London the night before an important pour. The entire film is restricted to his perspective from within the vehicle. It reminded me of Buried with Ryan Reynolds, a film that exhilarated me at the time but has faded considerably in my estimation. I’m not sure whether Locke will suffer from a similar deflation over time.

Locke starts with the title character getting in his SUV and heading onto the motorway. He makes a series of Bluetooth phone calls to home and work explaining his sudden departure from the construction site. He argues with his wife (Ruth Wilson) and his subordinate (Andrew Scott) who now has to handle the pour. Gradually we realize his reasons for heading to London are much greater than initially presumed.

Tom Hardy is fantastic in the lead role. If a lesser actor had played Locke, the film would have been impossible to make, and frankly, unwatchable. So much of the film’s tension stems from Hardy’s eyes as he stares at the road ahead or the way his soft voice struggles to maintain the illusion of confidence in the face of indecision. Ivan Locke is a man who prides himself on his impeccable work ethic. He boasts of being the best concrete foreman in England and believes that his steadfast confidence extends to his private life. Of course, the fact that Locke now finds himself on the road late at night, abandoning his family and his job, decries that steadfastness. Locke is trying to fix something in his life that likely cannot be fixed. He is a man with a plan and is determined to execute it—the will of others be damned.

Watching Tom Hardy is fascinating. He’s a physical actor, so confining him to a car seat for 85 minutes forces his acting style to manifest in subtler ways. Think of how much his performance as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises relies on his shifting through an environment in order to dominate it, or how as Eames in Inception he is constantly adjusting his impeccable suits to reflect the character's obsession with appearances. Here, Hardy can only stare, adjust the steering wheel or tense up in his seat. The part of me that performed Beckett in high school was giddy from the pure, capital-A acting on display here. But concentrated acting is not enough to make a film great.

That said, this intense focus on acting is Locke’s weakness as well as its strength. This is because I’m not sure there’s anything inherently cinematic about this film. Director Steven Knight makes some interesting choices with the sound design. The way the hollowness of the Bluetooth phone transmission makes the people on the other end of the line sound increasingly desperate adds a curious tension to the film. As well, Knight loves to have reflections of street lamps play across the windshield, obscuring our view of Hardy’s face or combining with it to make abstractions. You could attempt to mine meaning from the images created through this method, but I'm not sure you could develop a coherent interpretation.

Setting aside the film's bare sound design and visuals, the film's story is very metaphorical. Locke fixates on discussing concrete, but we know his real focus isn’t on concrete, just as we know the focus of the film is not on the literal happenings of a man driving down the M6 motorway. It’s more focused on this trip as an encapsulation of Locke’s struggle to define himself and escape the image of who he is that’s partially defined by his upbringing.

Locke is successful in these philosophical musings and blunt characterizations. It boasts a fabulous performance. It’s much more tense than it has any right to be. But I’m not sure anything would be lost if it were transferred from film to stage, since it lives and dies on the performance at its centre, not the camera capturing it. It’s a successfully gimmicky film, but a gimmick nonetheless.

7 out of 10

Written and directed by Steven Knight; starring Tom Hardy, Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott, Ben Daniels, and Tom Holland.