Not exactly a household name, English actor Tom Hardy is best known for having a breathing apparatus obscure his face while playing the hulking baddie Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. So it's somewhat of an intriguing move that in his latest, the British indie, Locke, all we get to see throughout the entire film is Hardy's face.
Essentially a road movie without a "road" to get off on and wander, or rather, wonder, Locke features Hardy as Ivan Locke, a construction foreman whose shift has ended, but whose long journey into night has just begun while at the wheel of his car. No sooner has he turned the ignition when he gets on his hands-free set and begins a series of personal and professional calls that will put his family life and his job in serious jeopardy.
Written and directed by fellow Brit Steven Knight (screenwriter of the male-dominant capsule that is Eastern Promises), the entirety of Locke takes place in that powerful cinematic symbol of exploration, destination and, sometimes paradoxically, freedom: the car, which takes its passenger(s) from point A to points unknown, or the self - same thing. There's an element of unpredictability in all road movies as the road always seems to disappear into the horizon. Think of Easy Rider, for example, or, better yet, Monte Hellman's Two-Lane Blacktop. Locke is no different and it's that unknown that keeps the passenger, namely, you, on the edge of your seat in what is genuinely an unpredictable plot fully constructed through dialogue.
Much like a Beckettian play, nothing much is physically happening, except what's coming out of the characters' mouths. In this case, at an emotional hundred miles an hour.
Like his fellow (un-)easy riders of cinematic legend, Ivan Locke is essentially Schrödinger's Cat in a box with wheels. His fate is determined by what takes place inside that rolling box. And he's got two choices. He's either the soulless man, the coward who runs away from the struggle of everyday life and becomes the person with a "corpse in his mouth," as Belgium philosopher Raoul Vaneigem might put it. Or Locke becomes the guy who decides to take a chance on life by facing it head on.
From the get-go, everything points to the right direction, but in the weakest aspect of an otherwise excellent script, that realization is like a horse beaten to death. We get it. Locke is typically a stand up guy - everybody implicitly or explicitly states it - and the decision he makes does not go against that acknowledgement. Yet, there's definitely a cold, almost heartless approach to Locke's admirable, hero-worthy choice that makes that choice more of a moral burden rather than a humanly reflexive, compassionate gesture on his part.
"We can't love or can't hate each other, can we?" is Locke's cold-hearted response to one of the several voices taking its turn coming out of his car's dash. This one, asking for his love and being denied its full spectrum. As if in a delayed, unconscious comeback, this same voice later refers to the physical cause of a certain entanglement as "a lifeline and a noose all at the same time."
That line could easily be describing the car's hands-free set.
Knight peppers the script with such artificially exquisite dialogue, serving up some great imagery to compensate for the fact that you're watching Hardy's face for a brisk 85 minutes, a crucial running time, lest the film's intensity begins to exhaust its welcome.
That's not to say that looking at Hardy's face for that entirety is boring. On the contrary, Hardy works with what he has and does much with his eyes, which sometimes seem dead with resignation, at other times alive with conflict. His hands are instruments of subtle declaration while that deep, professorial voice of his easily betrays his boyish face in bouts of admission. From that boyish face tears stream down without an edit, in two separate scenes, no less, in what amounts to be nothing short of impressive and what must surely be emotionally draining work. But there's a method to Hardy's madness as his character bares his soul with every layer of coolness that Hardy peels off, much to the shock of the other characters participating in the communion. In the process, Locke exhibits a self-awareness and self-reflection that is seldom seen (or heard!) from one who drives by night, going as far as condemning the sins of the invisible father who inhabits the rearview mirror. No matter how far Locke drives, the past is right there with him.
One can easily assume director and screenwriter Knight is a well-read Brit as his dialogue is also flavored with literary references. Waiting for Godot gets an unlikely shout-out, as does, obviously, Enlightenment thinker John Locke, not just in namesake, but in big chunks of speech as Hardy's character ruminates to both himself and to others on "the difference between good and bad" while traveling on what might be his road to internal happiness.
What might be more of a coincidental nod, however, is one to American writer John Cheever, author of another road-less "road movie." The Swimmer stars Burt Lancaster as a man who, in nothing but his speedo, swims his way back home from neighbor's pool through neighbor's pool, each emergence from the water a gateway to uncertainty and ultimate self-realization. In that 1968 movie, Lancaster's character, the decidedly Yank-named Ned Merrill, quotes the Bible's Song of Solomon to one of the many women from his past he encounters on his journey of self-exploration.
"Thy belly is like a heap of wheat, fenced about with lilies."
While at a stop, and with a simple affirmation, Ivan Locke's future seems open to all the potential a new life has to offer. All the while, the GPS disappears into the horizon and the carriageway is filled with an endless stream of lights and all their stories...
Locke opens in LA on Friday, April 25, at The Landmark.