Tom Hardy plays the title role, and only on-screen character in “Locke,” which takes place entirely during an hour and a half car trip. Don’t worry. You won’t be asking “Are we there, yet?” Writer/director Steven Knight, who wrote the screenplays to “Eastern Promises” and “Dirty Pretty Things,” has crafted a taut, absorbing drama, whose only gimmick is the one-man-in-a-car device.
Ivan Locke is a successful construction foreman at the top of his field, and we quickly gather that’s because he’s really good at what he does. He’s leaving work when we first meet him, and the movie wastes no time establishing that his carefully ordered life is about to fall apart.
There’s no question that Locke is better at managing his professional life than his personal. He’s painfully to the point and accurate, to the point of telling Bethan (Olivia Colman of “The Iron Lady”), a one night stand who’s about to have his baby, that of course he doesn’t love her; he barely knows her. Yet his inflexible sense of honor and obligation extends to both spheres of his life. He can’t walk away from the upcoming, gigantic cement pour on his construction job even when he’s fired any more than he can refuse to go to Bethan when she goes into labor prematurely. This is the other major component to Locke’s psychological makeup: he has a hard time believing there’s any part of his life he can’t control.
All of Locke’s interactions with other people during the movie, and there are actually a lot of them, are via Bluetooth. The people in his life, personal and business, are disembodied voices coming through a speakerphone.
Of course the device is a gimmick, and frankly, an almost anti-cinematic one. Movies are not inherently dialogue-driven, but “Locke” unfolds almost exclusively through the main character’s phone calls. (There are some instances of Locke speaking out loud to his absent father, symbolized by the empty back seat.)
On top of this, there are probably no more than half a dozen different angles of Hardy in the entire movie, interspersed with occasional shots of the Bluetooth screen to identify the other parties to the conversations, and exterior shots of the English highway at night. Knight generally manages to stick to Howard Hawks’ old dictum “Cut on movement.” When he can’t, he cheats. He dissolves, or changes focus at the beginning of a shot. Thing is, the technique works, and “Locke”is never static- if anything erring on the side of being overly kinetic. But Knight undeniably keeps his story in the fast lane. “Locke” is told with a brisk efficiency its main character would admire.
Knight and his director of photography Haris Zambarloukos (“Thor,” “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”) milk their small, moving stage for everything it’s worth, incorporating the highway and traffic in a way that defeats any sense of claustrophobia (as contrasted with Rodrigo Cortés’ 2010 “Buried,” which made sure its audience was all but literally gasping for breath as the air ran out). In fact one thing you absolutely have to give Knight is his evocation of the eeriness of late night travel.
It would be tempting to call “Locke” a radio drama with nice photography, but Hardy is acting even when he isn’t talking. His face, his body language, his sweat and an occasional tear often do the talking for him. Perhaps best-known for the ferocious physicality of his roles in “Warrior” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” the chameleon-like actor is riveting here. The best movie acting often takes place behind the eyes, and this is particularly the case when a character is wrapped tight. Locke almost never raises his voice, and never when anyone else can hear him. One of the great rewards “Locke” has to offer is the opportunity to see Hardy acting in a minor key.
Dickon Hinchliffe’s (“Winter’s Bone”) unobtrusive music score is effective. American audiences will initially worry about the oncoming freeway traffic being in the wrong lane. But as to the movie, “Locke” knows its direction from the outset and gets there briskly, with no wrong turns.
“Locke” opens May 16th at the Spectrum 7 on Delaware Avenue in Albany.