Director: Steven Knight
Starring: Tom Hardy
Tom Hardy is an incredibly magnetic actor. Very few could do what he does so successfully in Locke, where he remains the only person on screen for all 84 of the film's minutes and renders a performance as subtle as it is powerful. This film about a man whose entire life slowly implodes as he drives from Birmingham to London practically demands overacting just to fill the void where other characters would usually be, but Hardy and director Steven Knight are confident enough to let a low key performance guide the ship. That said, I'm not sure whether the film ever fully transcends its premise in order to feel like a story in its own right as opposed to an exercise in strict minimalism, but it definitely can't be denied that Hardy gives an exceptionally strong performance.
Hardy stars as Ivan Locke, a construction foreman with a major project underway and a happy home life with his wife and two sons. As he's leaving the job site for the night with plans to go home and watch a football match with his family, he receives a phone call and learns that Bethan, a former co-worker with whom he had a one-night stand several months earlier, is in labor and that the baby is his. Learning this, Locke decides to make the long drive to London in order to be with Bethan when their child is born, determined to do right by his child so that he doesn't repeat the failures of his own father. As he drives he makes several phone calls, speaking to his sons, whose excitement about watching the game with him, and whose disappointment when they learn that he won't be coming home that night, breaks his heart; with his wife, Katrina, who is understandably distressed when he explains to her why he isn't coming home; with Bethan, who becomes increasingly frightened as the birth becomes increasingly complicated; with his boss, who is beside himself when he learns that Locke is on his way to London the night before the most important day in the project; and with his assistant, Donal, whom he has too talk through preparations to ensure that work the following day goes off without a hitch.
Though Locke is hopeful that his marriage can be repaired and that he can make Katrina understand that his indiscretion was a one time thing with a lonely woman he felt sorry for, her perspective on the subject is understandably different and his revelation causes her to reconsider what she recalls of his behavior around the time that his affair would have happened. She's also incensed when she discovers that Locke is attempting to solve a professional problem at the same time that he's trying to navigate this very personal crisis. Meanwhile, Bethan is coming apart in a different way, desperately expressing her desire for a permanent connection to Locke which goes beyond the fact that they're about the share a child together, repeatedly asking him if he loves her while he repeatedly tries to let her down as gently as possible. Meanwhile, his boss is unimpressed that he's abandoned his post at such an important time even though Locke is so dedicated to his work that he continues taking steps to ensure that things come off properly even after he's been fired. The quality of the work is important to him even if he won't be allowed to see it through himself, so he tries to guide Donal through the steps he needs to take, locking horns with him when it becomes clear that Donal has been drinking and might not be in a state to do things properly. "When I left the site just over two hours ago, I had a job, a wife, a home. And now I have none of those things," he states towards the end of the film, "I have none of those things left. I just have myself and the car that I'm in. And I'm just driving and that's it."
That's the story - a man driving and driving, taking and making phone calls as he struggles to keep it together as he's pulled in multiple directions at once. His only interactions are with voices on the other end of the telephone, and with the voice in his head representing the father he barely knew and with whom he has a one-sided conversation as he drives. Because of his experience with his own father, whom he did not meet until he was an adult, he cannot fathom not having a relationship with the child about to be born, leaving him or her adrift and without a solid sense of identity. He behaved badly in having the affair - he laments repeatedly that he's behaved in a way "not like" himself - but he's determined to do right by the child, even if doing so will mean destroying his marriage. As portrayed by Hardy, Locke is a man with a firm sense of responsibility who wants to find a way to meet all of those responsibilities - to the child, to his already existing family, to his job - as they overlap and conflict. As everyone he speaks to begins to breakdown as they suffer the consequences of his actions and decisions, Hardy keeps Locke as even-keeled as possible, only really breaking down when he speaks to Katrina and their sons and is forced to contend with the notion that this won't be something he can "fix." Hardy's performance is quiet, but it's so from-the-gut real that it is often mesmerizing and never less than compelling, even in the moments when Locke converses with his absent father, which might otherwise have been overly contrived.
Locke is a wonderful showcase for Hardy, and his performance is the best reason to see the film. Beyond the performance, the film is a modernist experiment in form that only sort of works. Except for the very beginning and end of the film, the story takes place entirely in Locke's car as he's driving, and the minimalism of the setting and the lack of face-to-face interactions between Locke and other characters gives the film an appropriately claustrophobic feeling and the character an appropriate sense of isolation, but the film never completely rises to meet Hardy's performance. The energy level of the film, though its running time is slim, is low and the attempts to give it a sense of movement sometimes leave it resembling a car commercial. At the same time, however, Knight (who wrote as well as directing the piece) seems to recognize that Hardy is the film's greatest asset and lets the performance breathe enough that it fills up what might otherwise have been dead space and grounds the story in the reality of character's complex emotions. So, while I'm not sure that this could have been pulled off with another actor at the center, Hardy's performance is so strong and such a dominant piece of the puzzle that the worst thing you can say about Locke is that it's merely "good."