Many moons ago, I reviewed a movie called The Kitchen. It utilized the single-setting format, a difficult trick, especially when you have as little sense of self-identity as that movie did. Locke (2014 [on this part of the Atlantic, anyways]), in contrast, is a single-setting movie that knows exactly what it wants to be: a character-driven drama that utilizes the talents of Tom Hardy in order to reveal the nuances of a stellar script.
The basic conceit is straightforward: Ivan Locke (Hardy) leaves for London the night before he is to lead a major concrete-pouring project. Over the course of the two-hour drive—which we see about three quarters of in nearly real-time, with no cutaways from Locke in his car—he has to explain to his boss, Gareth (Ben Daniels), why he left; detail the pouring process to his co-worker, Donal (Andrew Scott); talk to the woman he is driving to meet, Bethan (Olivia Colman); and explain his absence from home to his wife, Katrina (Ruth Wilson). The risks in pulling this off are the same as they were for The Kitchen: if the drama and writing are not compelling, you have an aimless, masturbatory, and boring piece of cinema.
Locke, fortunately, does not make any egregious mistakes. The script—written by Steven Knight, who also directs—does not slack at any point. The narrative always moves forward. Fortunately, Knight also takes opportunities to have quiet moments, so that we are not bombarded with plot development. Every line is carefully chosen to both reveal character and add conflict while retaining character. The result is a story that is well-paced, but more importantly, we understand that Locke is first and foremost an analysis of character, motivation, and action.
I could kind of guess that fact going in, although I was relieved to find that the movie does not go out of its way to analyze philosophical questions in order to reveal how smart the director is. Perhaps the ideas of famous philosopher John Locke are part of the drama (you would have to ask fellow columnist Colin French), but they are not the driving (ha) force. Instead, we slowly learn about what could push an incredibly successful man to miss a stellar night with his family and the biggest job of his career to meet some woman somewhere. Ivan Locke’s principles and mindset might not be agreeable to everyone, but we understand why he has them. In a sense, we know what he might say next, because we know him. Many films fail to accomplish this understanding of character; while Locke might have a structural advantage in revealing it, the success is still notable.
The cause of that must be linked to Hardy as equally as it is to the script. His performance is so quiet, so subtle that—as with many of his performances—I forget I am watching Tom Hardy entrely. He becomes Ivan Locke. When he opens his mouth, I hear Ivan. When he looks around him, I see Ivan. That level of character is hard to reach in any medium—even better actors than Hardy fail to make me forget that I am still watching Nicholson, or Firth, or whomever—and Hardy has no problem catapulting past most levels onto a masterful one.
The cinematography is rather simple, but only when I go out of my way to pay attention do I notice the subtle edits and shot compositions that build the tension with the writing. Although that aspect of the direction it is not as stand-out fantastic, it still manages to move the film forward at a brisk and tense pace. You forget that the idea of a single-setting is somewhat gimmicky and instead feel trapped in the car with Ivan, his failures and successes becoming yours as well.
Locke is a rather brilliant little movie; I can’t say I will return to it repeatedly, but to watch it is to experience a top-notch flick in terms of narrative and craft. It’s the kind of movie that I can see a young filmmaker watching to understand how to build character, tension, and drama without having to add exclamation points at the end of every sentence. In short, it’s a damn good movie.
But that being said, as someone who grew up in Nowhere, U.S.A., I was confused as to why he couldn’t make the two-hour drive, be there for the pregnancy, go do the concrete pour, then head back. Two hours is not a long drive, Tom Hardy.