Locke is a daring British film that sounds rather contrived when you try to explain it, and yet works with silky ease. Since it’s vital to go into the film with a blank slate, just know that it stars Tom Hardy as Ivan Locke, a Welsh construction manager driving to London one evening with his professional and personal life hanging in the balance. No other actor physically appears – just several voices over the car speakerphone as Ivan makes his way down the motorway, painstakingly going through the nuts and bolts of his various problems. Not since Godard made Operation Concrete in 1958 has a story been more interested in the peculiarities of building materials (“Concrete is as delicate as blood,” coos Ivan).
Now, lest the idea of this sort of thing should lack allure, let me say that this is a very exciting film: a moral quandary played out like a thriller. We’ve seen movies set in one claustrophobic location before (memorably Ryan Reynolds trapped in a coffin in Buried), but managing to sustain with such panache just one actor on screen negotiating with different voices, and never once cutting to scenes or faces elsewhere, is radical. Even more radical are the character traits the film admires. Essentially it is about a guy remaining calm. Have you ever seen a film entirely about that? Writer-director Steven Knight – by all accounts himself an unflappable, focused man – turned the whole project around from first draft to first screening in just five weeks (almost unthinkable), shooting inside a moving car over eight nights after rehearsing for six.
On one level, Locke is a glorious example of “what crazy stuff can we pull off in as little time as possible?”, and yet there is a brilliance on the page and behind the camera here that has rarely been evident in Knight’s previous work. As a screenwriter (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises) he has shown a proficiency with tension and danger. And his first film as a director, Hummingbird, about a homeless war veteran, did have a convincing sympathy for the desperate snuggling somewhere inside the fairly trite material.
But none of it hinted at the precision and confidence of Locke. It is a movie with a pace that never slackens, and yet still allows you to feel you’re being given time to recollect, reflect, look about. Knight has had one moment of unquestioned brilliance before – when he worked in television in 1998 he co-created Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? Clearly Locke is his second eureka moment, not least since Ivan is a version of the name John and, in effect, we have John Locke behind the wheel, the rational philosopher, who more than any other believed in calm, self-reflective consciousness.