Whether he's the center of attention like in his furious breakthrough Bronson; under a mask and unintelligible as in The Dark Knight Rises; or part of the Inception ensemble, it's hard to take one's eyes off of Tom Hardy. More often than not it's Hardy's physical prowess that stands out; he's always had something of an animal presence about him that's undeniable. But no film has asked Hardy to keep the audience’s attention quite like Steven Knight's sterling single-location thriller, Locke, and it makes the case for Hardy as one of the most compelling actors working today.
The single-location film is a tough nut for even the most veteran director, but Knight shows an uncanny confidence in only his second feature behind the camera. Known mainly for his gritty screenplays such as Eastern Promises and Dirty Pretty Things, Knight shows his precise hand and a ton of guts in guiding a movie set entirely behind the wheel of a moving vehicle. It's a different sort of role for Hardy, as well, one that demands an exacting level of emotional control for his is the only face we're going to see, and one slip up means the whole thing could go astray.
Hardy is Ivan Locke, a top construction expert on the verge of the biggest concrete pour in Europe's history. It will make or break the company he works for, and on the eve it's to take place he hops in his BMW and skips town to London. Understandably, this freaks out his colleagues who are used to relying on the typically dependable Locke, but he's determined to get somewhere important. All we know at first is that it's to see a woman (voiced by Olivia Colman), and it must be that night. We also know that Locke has a family; a wife (Ruth Wilson) who is waiting for him at home and two boys (Tom Holland and Bill Milner) who are anxious for Dad's arrival so they can watch the big soccer match.
But Locke isn't coming home, and it's clear that this man, who seems like a good and decent person, is risking everything to fix a major screw-up. His personal and professional life is at stake through every mile of his journey, and Knight, who also penned the screenplay, ratchets up the tension or flips it around with every phone call Locke receives. It may not sound all that interesting to watch Hardy talk on his car phone for the duration, but Knight smartly doles out just enough new information that nothing stays dormant for long. What becomes obvious is that Locke is a man who has always prided himself on self-control, and a momentary lapse in judgment has shaken his sense of self. "I'll fix it and it'll all go back to normal", he says with a certainty that borders on delusional. As Locke scrambles to assuage the fears of his nervous assistant, who must now handle the job alone, he must also calm down the woman he's racing towards while trying to hold his family together. The less said about the exact details the better, as Knight and Hardy guide us along deliberately through Locke's soulful journey. There are details revealed about Locke that will constantly alter our perceptions of him and the people who populate his life. His atypical actions have everyone on edge, and they bring us to the edge our seats, too.
It's rare that Locke takes us outside of the vehicle, but when he does the gorgeous, nocturnal cinematography only deepens the mood; sinking us further into Locke's plight. It's amazing how much one can learn about a man in a scant 90 minutes, but we know everything about Locke by the time the movie is done. All of his failings and strengths laid bare for us to see and judge; we know why he seems so eager to make hard decisions regardless of the personal cost. Where the story skids off the road is during Locke's imagined conversations with his deadbeat father. They seem like overkill, making a point about Locke's character that Hardy is more than capable of getting across. His performance here is understated, controlled, and he owns every single moment.
Other than a few false notes, Locke is impressively bold; as thrilling as it is resonant. If nothing else it marks daring new territory for Hardy and Knight alike.