It’s the late evening, and Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) should be getting ready for one of the largest concrete pours in European history, but instead, he is in his car on the expressway to London to be with a woman he hardly knows as she gives birth to his child.
Locke is happily married with two kids, his family expects him home for the big football game, and his partner Donal (voiced by Andrew Scott) is not ready to prepare for the pour all on his own. For his 85 minute drive, Locke is alternatingly on the phone with Donal giving him instructions for the pour, talking to the mother of his newest child, Bethan (voiced by Olivia Colman), to keep her calm and assure her that he will be there for the birth, trying to act like nothing is wrong when his kids pick up the phone instead of his wife, and looking for a “plausible next step” when he does get her on the line.
Locke, the directorial debut Eastern Promises and Closed Circuit screenwriter Steven Knight, takes place entirely in the title character’s car, rotating among phone conversations with the aforementioned characters. Superimpositions of the road, headlights, and an occasional shot of the road from the back-right tire serve as the only escape. Those expected renderings aside, the film spends its real-time drive with the only character we get to see. Hardy does not quite have the chops for this role—he lacks the chops to sell the most emotional and pressing moments, and his Welsh accent is defined primarily by the hint of irritation that comes and goes almost randomly. In particular, the few scenes in which he talks to the ghost of his father in the backseat are atrocious, a device to provide the “back story” as to why Locke is sacrificing his family and work to be there for this birth (you guessed it: it’s because his dad was a deadbeat!) that Hardy can never sell with any integrity. The other conversations work individually, even if they never cohere as much as they should, but these needless attempts at backstory drag the film down each time they rear their ugly head.
It’s those other conversations that prevent the film from failing outright. The smaller players feel less like supporting characters than other, complete people involved in the story. Hardy cryptically explains the events that led to his one-night stand with Bethan, but the longing in her voice and her cries for love are what really bring her to life. Likewise, the details regarding the football game; a preferred meal, a shirt that Locke’s wife is finally wearing, and the enthusiasm in the voice of the sons render believability and interest in Locke’s family. Donal, meanwhile, is perhaps the film’s best character. Presumably an alcoholic, he scrambles to keep up with Locke’s instruction but is never quite certain about how to approach a situation but does not want to let Locke down, even going so far as to avoid his boss’s phone calls. The phone calls cycle amongst the aforementioned players, but Donal’s are by far the most unexpected and compelling.
But these characters are still ultimately in service of Locke, looking to turn it into a story of a man slowly losing everything, Hardy’s Locke is too much the calm, rational male to make it particularly stressful, and that traffic is always okay (or ignored) means that the film misses a great opportunity to portray claustrophobia, stress, and urgency—three traits that seem essential to the tale but are in fact ignored. Instead, Locke suffices to be proficiently moody, thanks largely because of the Red Epic digital camera’s ability to provide clear images purely with natural light. This moodiness, aided by superimpositions of headlights and highway, is enough to sustain the film but not enough to elevate it, as the visual tricks that provide it are fast-becoming clichés, particularly here when they serve as the primary visual metaphor. Accordingly, the car setting comes off more as a means of justifying the rotating phone calls that structure the film rather than integral to theme and meaning is hard to forgive. Director Steven Knight keeps the camera close to Locke’s face, but given Hardy’s underwhelming performance, this feels to be more out of necessity than anything else.
What this leaves us with, a series of phone calls that see Locke go from employed and married to alone with only a slim possibility of a new life, are interesting enough but ultimately a tad hollow. Is it a critique of the cool, rational man who fashions himself as being in the right even when he is not? The film never makes an effort to criticize him, and that things seem to fall apart in spite of rather than because of him does not aid this outlook. If it’s weighing its two major themes against each other—one being the oft-repeated quote that “the difference between never and once is the difference between good and bad” (in reference to Locke cheating) and the other the equally-repetitive claims of the importance of being a father—it comes out on the side of the latter but never does enough to complicate the themes and to depict them as genuinely rather than artificially mutually exclusive. If it’s a representation of one man’s fall in which the faint possibility of rising is supposed to resonate, it never makes Locke a complex enough character to let that happen. Ultimately, Locke feels like a formal exercise, albeit a well-penned one, more than anything else, carried more by the faceless supporting cast rather than the man in the driver seat.