One-man movies can serve as a great showcase for talented actors and innovative directors, but tackling such a film comes with certain risks for all involved. They can expose an actor's inability to command our attention for ninety minutes, or expose a director's inability to make a single setting visually compelling, or give viewers the feeling that they're watching a gimmick rather than a necessary storytelling device (see Wrecked and The Telephone – or rather, don't - for prominent examples of films that succumb to all three of these problems). Fortunately, Steven Knight's Locke – which devotes the entirety of its running time to watching Tom Hardy (Mad Max: Fury Road) make an 85-minute drive while talking on the phone – avoids the obvious pitfalls and delivers an increasingly riveting cinematic experience.
Hardy plays Ivan Locke, a construction foreman tasked with overseeing a high-stakes concrete pour at a site in Birmingham (England, not Alabama). It's the night before the pour, and Locke has received some distressing news: a woman (voiced by Olivia Colman, Peep Show) he had a one-night stand with is preparing to give birth to his child. The woman has no family or friends she can call, and she asks Locke if he will drive to the hospital for moral support. He agrees, despite the fact that making the long drive means that he will not be able to oversee the pour. This will likely mean the loss of his job. Additionally, he will have to explain his absence to his wife Katrina (voiced by Ruth Wilson, The Affair), which may very well bring an end to his fifteen-year marriage.
Knight's screenplay has a deliberately cyclical structure, as Locke engages in brief, complicated conversations with the same handful of people over and over again. He must continually reassure his one-time mistress that he is on his way and that he will not abandon her, he must continually attempt to persuade his wife that he still loves her and that this whole thing is the result of a one-time mistake, he must continually attempt to persuade his co-worker (voiced by Andrew Scott, Sherlock) that the pour will play out smoothly and he must continually persuade his son (voiced by Tom Holland, The Impossible) that everything will be okay and that he'll explain everything when he gets home. Throughout, we hear a series of recurring lines that give the film a distinct Mametian vibe: “I wasn't acting like myself.” “It was once.” “I am trying to do the right thing.”
At a first glance, Locke's decision to potentially throw away nearly everything of value in his life for the sake of attending his illegitimate child's birth seems a little extreme, but it doesn't take long to realize that he is a victim of his own sense of principle. He knows he has done something wrong, but he refuses to indulge in any further wrongdoing in the hopes of making something right. He will not allow this child to be abandoned the way he was abandoned. He will not leave his family to be with this other woman, but he will be there for his new son. He is truthful to a crushing fault, being absolutely honest with everyone he speaks to even when it's obvious that a tiny white lie could save him a world of grief. “Why didn't you just say you were sick?” asks his alternately infuriated and confused boss. The unseen characters aren't just treated as problems to be dealt with, but as real people with their own complicated feelings. We feel for Locke, but we also feel for the people being affected by his decisions.
I'm always fascinated by the weird, wonderful things Hardy does with his voice, and in Locke he serves up yet another accent that feels both curiously specific and hard to place. It's precise and calm, like a radio broadcaster's voice – you hear traces of Steve Coogan here and there, but also a hint of an Indian accent that makes you wonder about the specifics of Locke's upbringing. During his conversations with others, he speaks in a measured, even-handed tone that suggests he's trying to underplay the bewildering nature of his decision. The people on the other line are alternately shouting and sobbing and panicking and swearing, but Locke keeps replying with the same patient-yet-immovable tone.
As you might expect, Locke is more distressed than he lets on, and Hardy slowly begins to let us see traces of his vulnerability. He looks into the rearview mirror and engages in a series of imaginary conversations with his father, who abandoned him when he was just a child. Every so often, between phone calls, he'll permit himself a loud, solitary profanity. Then it's back to business – there are a lot of things to deal with, and he has to keep his focus to deal with them properly.
Knight gives the film a distinct visual sensibility (the film's look is definitely by colorful reflections of light on Locke's windshield), but never attempts to use visual gimmickry to juice things up (making the film a fairly sharp contrast to Danny Boyle's overdirected 127 Hours). Through the phone conversations, Knight taps into the imagination-stoking power of a great radio drama, creating a world that feels much fuller and richer than what we actually see. I felt as if I could see Locke's son watching the soccer game, his wife vomiting in the bathroom, and his co-worker medicating his stress with hard cider. It's a tremendous piece of work, and joins the likes of All is Lost and Secret Honor as a sterling example of how rich a one-man film can be.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Release Year: 2014
Running Time: 85 minutes