While the idea of setting a film in a single, cramped location is nothing new – Hitchcock’s Lifeboat and Lumet’s 12 Angry Men are earlier successful examples – it has become quite fashionable during the past decade or so, with plenty of writers, directors, casts and crews eagerly tackling the many challenges posed by confined spaces. We’ve seen Colin Farrell chatting with a sniper (Phone Booth), Ryan Reynolds desperately trying to get out of a coffin (Buried), a tetchy tank crew growing tetchier by the minute (Lebanon), Jodie Foster channeling Macaulay Culkin in a Home Alone for grown-ups (Panic Room), five people stuck in a lift with Beelzebub himself (Devil) and even an Apprentice-style group taking a mysterious written test (Exam).
Steven Knight – who wrote the excellent screenplays for Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises before directing the Jason Statham actioner Hummingbird – has made one of the more interesting entries into this claustro-thriller sub-genre. His second feature, Locke, includes just one on-screen character and is set entirely within a rather plush-looking car; a BMW X5, it says here. While it is perhaps not quite as thrilling as some of the above-mentioned films it does exude its own peculiar, measured feeling of dread and panic.
Tom Hardy plays Ivan Locke, a man who is used to being in control of his home and work life, and it is the sense of this firm grip gradually loosening that increases the dramatic tension in Knight’s film. We follow Ivan, a foreman on a construction site, as he drives on the motorway from Birmingham to London, quickly learning that he is dealing with three simultaneous crises in his life (spoilers follow, so look away now if you don’t want to know any plot details). Problem one: Ivan has had a brief affair with a lonely Londoner called Bethan (Olivia Coleman), who became pregnant as a result and is about to give birth, two months premature. Problem two: He hasn’t told his wife of 15 years, Katrina (Ruth Wilson), about the affair, or his young sons Eddie (Tom Holland) and Sean (Bill Milner), let alone the pregnancy. Problem three: He has decided to drive to London to be present at the birth as Bethan has no family to rely on. Unfortunately this means he will not be present at a building site early the next morning, where the largest concrete pouring in European history is due to take place, meaning that the inexperienced and unreliable Donal (Andrew Scott) must – literally – fill in for him. (Problem four: Initially, at least, he is in Birmingham.)
Hardy’s character needs to be in three places at once, but unfortunately is in none of them, instead fielding a succession of calls while driving at night along two of the UK’s busiest roads (his next phone bill, it must be said, will be astronomical). Though suffering with a cold, Locke deals with these problems in a calm, methodical way: the step-by-step instructions he gives to Donal are not dissimilar to the way in which he tries to problem-solve with his understandably furious and heartbroken wife, who is angered further by the way he attempts to project manage the future of their marriage. He remains just as calm and methodical when informed that Bethan’s unborn baby is being strangled by the umbilical cord, and an emergency caesarean must take place, but eventually the combination of these separate pressures begins to take its toll.
Ivan’s conversations rotate, primarily taking place with Bethan, Katrina and Donal, though not exclusively. The camera is trained for most of the film on Hardy as his character becomes increasingly exasperated by the escalation of the three linked situations. We witness his growing frustration from a variety of exterior and interior angles, with bokeh from overhead lights and headlamps, as well as windscreen reflections, forming interesting patterns across the screen; cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos does a good job in keeping the film visually interesting, using gradual shifts of focal length to turn the repetitive mundanity of the motorway into an abstract, slightly-kaleidoscopic environment.
At times Locke imagines and bitterly addresses his dead father, who was absent from Ivan’s life until the age of 23, via the rear-view mirror. Despite not being in love with Katrina Ivan has decided to do the right thing, and intends to act as a responsible father to the new child, a decision clearly influenced by his own upbringing and his father’s treatment of his mother. Locke’s angrily-delivered statements to the empty back seat are a little odd and perhaps unnecessary, though they do at least help to paint the character in a more sympathetic light.
As Locke was released a year ago it seems the following point has been made ad infinitum by critics, but I ought to say it nonetheless: it is quite an achievement that a film about a man talking on the phone in his car – often about concrete – is actually entertaining … and indeed for the most part quite involving. Much of the credit for this must be shared between Knight, who wrote the screenplay, and Hardy, who delivers another eye-catching performance that will further enhance his reputation as a fine actor with a penchant for unusual and demanding roles. (Incidentally, Hardy won the LA Film Critics Award for Best Actor for his work here, a victory that has often been followed up in the past by the winner with an Oscar, but while Hardy is good, he’s not that good.)
While Hardy carries the film on his shoulders adeptly, and delivers a restrained, mostly-captivating performance, I’m less convinced by those on the other end of the phone line; all of their roles must have been difficult, given the way in which the dialogues take place, but several conversations feel a little over-the-top to me, a factor emphasised by the low-key reactions and calm responses emanating from behind the wheel. Chiefly Donal’s increasingly panicky, drunken outbursts – though perfectly understandable – make you wonder why he is second-in-command on a job where £11 million is supposedly at stake, or indeed why Locke feels he would be a good stand-in.
It’s a risky film, in the sense that it is one that might be reasonably described a ‘hard sell’, but the concept has been well-executed and like many of the movies mentioned in the first paragraph it wisely sticks to a short running time. Despite this I began to tire of it before the end and can’t quite fathom why it has been so widely celebrated, but for the most part I did find it interesting, and the link between concrete and the new and old foundations of Locke’s two families works well. If you ever wondered why there was so much fuss surrounding Hardy then this film, as well as the earlier Bronson, should explain his popularity to a certain extent.
Directed by: Steven Knight
Written by: Steven Knight
Starring: Tom Hardy, Olivia Coleman, Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott
Running Time: 83 minutes