Rated R for language throughout.
Running time: 85 minutes.
Three and a half stars out of four.
Movies that take place in real time and/or confined spaces may sound like flimsy gimmicks — see: “Phone Booth,” “Buried” — but when they work, they can be supremely gripping.
Take last year’s “All Is Lost,” for example, with Robert Redford fighting for survival alone on a boat in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Part of what made “Gravity” such a powerful experience was its sense of claustrophobia within the vastness of space — and the fact that, for much of the film’s running time, the only person Sandra Bullock’s character has to rely on is herself.
In “Locke,” we ride shotgun with Tom Hardy as he makes a fateful nighttime drive to London. He is the only person we see on screen for the entire film. There are worse ways to spend 90 minutes.
But in that time — and writer-director Steven Knight’s meticulously controlled film does indeed roll out in real time — Hardy gives a tour-de-force performance. This is an overused critical term, I realize, but it’s just so fitting. Hardy shows such precision and so much range. His work here is especially impressive compared to the films he made his name on, which have required a ferocious physicality: “Bronson,” “Inception,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Warrior” and even the throwaway rom-com “This Means War.” Here, he fleshes out his character in close-up with a raised eyebrow, the movement of his hands on the steering wheel, the way he strokes his beard as he talks in a soothing and restrained Welsh accent.
After all, he’s got lots of people to appease and not much time in which to do it.
Hardy stars as Ivan Locke, a married father of two boys who has carved out a reputation for himself as being sharp, capable and even-tempered. A well-regarded and seasoned construction manager, he’s about to oversee the biggest project of his life, quick glimpses of which Knight shows us as Locke steps into his BMW and pulls away. But over the course of one evening, one drive and many, many phone calls, everything he worked to achieve threatens to come crashing down around him.
With each person he talks to and each exit he passes on the motorway, the picture becomes clearer — the reason he’s heading away from work, away from home, away from the family’s that’s waiting for him. The script from Knight, who previously wrote “Dirty Pretty Things” and “Eastern Promises,” is both efficient and tantalizing in the way it reveals information about this person and the situation in which he’s found himself.
Talking hands-free nearly incessantly, Locke alternates between his wife, Katrina (Ruth Wilson), who’s preparing dinner; his sons, Eddie and Sean (Tom Holland and Bill Milner), who are excited to watch a big soccer match with him; his boss, Gareth (Ben Daniels), who’s furious with him for abandoning the project; and his overwhelmed second-in-command, Donal (Andrew Scott), who’s suddenly in charge. (“Locke” will teach you more than you ever could have imagined about pouring concrete.)
And then there is another frequent caller: the person Locke is driving to see, Bethan (Olivia Colman). Seems he shared one night and too much wine with her while he was out of town on a job about nine months ago. Now, she’s about to give birth to his child. And she’s extremely fragile.
Each time the phone rings, we grow edgier and edgier. Who will it be next? What will they want? Police cars pass with lights flashing and sirens blaring, adding to the sense of anxiety. Cinematographer Hans Zambarloukos makes clever use of reflection through the car’s windows and artfully plays with lighting and shadows coming from both sides of the highway.
But Locke maintains an almost chilling sense of calm for the most part. He keeps the plates spinning, but quick, sporadic outbursts reveal his mounting frustration and fear. There’s a hypnotic quality not only to the tone of his voice but also to the repeated use of several key phrases as he tries to convince himself he’s doing the right thing — doing the selfless thing — for the first time in his life. One conceit that did not work for me, though, was Locke’s frequent conversations with his late, lowlife father, whom he imagines is sitting behind him in the back seat. It helps explain his motivation, certainly, but it also feels needlessly melodramatic.
Still, there’s so much that’s so cool about the way Knight and his crew pulled off this high-concept, low-budget experiment. (“Locke” cost a mere $2 million.) They outfitted the car with various kinds of cameras and shot over the course of five nights on a few different motorways. The other actors made actual phone calls to Hardy in the car while sitting in a conference room. And Hardy really had a cold while he was shooting, so all those snotty tissues and slurps of Dayquil aren’t just for affect — they’re for survival.
On one lonely stretch of road, Locke loses his way but looks for redemption. You’d never want to find yourself in such a predicament, but if you did, you’d want Tom Hardy to play you in the movie version. It’s a riveting thing to behold.