The Film 'Locke' Has Only One Actor, but It's a Thrilling Ride

A man’s life changes in the course of a nighttime drive from Birmingham to London in an intelligent, minimalist film directed by Steven Knight.

Locke Written and directed by Steven Knight; with Tom Hardy

Experimental film is everywhere on our screens these days. After Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” shot for a few days each summer over a 12-year stretch; “Party Girl,” a feature by Marie Amachoukeli, Claire Burger and Samuel Theis, in which members of Theis’ family play themselves; and Shlomi and Ronit Elkabetz’s “Gett,” set entirely inside a single space (the rabbinical courtroom and its adjacent waiting area) – now Israeli viewers have a chance to see “Locke,” a movie featuring a single actor and the voices of many others, unfolding in the course of a single nighttime drive from Birmingham to London.

The actor is Tom Hardy, known to us from films such as “Inception,” “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Lawless.” “Locke” is the second directorial project of British writer Steven Knight, whose writing credits include Stephen Frears’ “Dirty Pretty Things” and David Cronenberg’s “Eastern Promises.” Since it is minimalist not only in style but in plot, which consists of only a few basic narrative components, what follows may be perceived as a spoiler. Readers who do not like knowing such details in advance should probably stop here and read the review only after they have seen the movie.

Hardy’s pleasant face and soft voice, which he does not raise even in crisis moments, are two essential components of this film, in which he plays Ivan Locke, a construction manager whose life and career come apart in the course of his drive to London. Locke is married to Katrina and has two soccer-loving sons; he is going to London to be with his assistant, Bethan, who is about to give birth to a child conceived during a one-night stand with Locke when he was traveling for business. Bethan has gone into early labor at the worst possible time for Locke: that same night he is supposed to supervise preparations for Europe’s largest-ever concrete pour, which will be the foundation for a new skyscraper. But Locke – a decent man apparently not given to having affairs – will not abandon Bethan, who sounds needy and fragile on the phone, even if it means losing his job – and probably his family, since his wife does not yet know of his infidelity, of Bethan’s pregnancy, or of her husband’s journey to be by his lover’s side as she delivers the baby.

The plot, revealed through the phone calls Locke makes during his drive, unfolds on two parallel tracks. Being a decent man, Locke knows that his boss will fire him for going to London on the eve of such an enormous project, but he does not abandon his professional responsibilities. All through the drive he talks his rather panicked assistant through what has to happen that night in order for the cement pour to go off as planned the next day. At the same time he also confesses to his wife and speaks to his sons at home, where they were all supposed to watch an important soccer match together. We follow both parts of the plot with interest. As absurd as it may sound, the dry, factual nature of the professional conversations – Locke’s negotiations with his assistant and his clash with his boss, who respects him but knows he must be fired – makes this part of the movie stronger than its personal, more dramatic side. I always find it interesting to learn about a man’s work, and Knight manages to turn the impending concrete pour into a suspenseful drama. Locke’s confession to his wife and her reaction to his news are moving, as are his conversations with Bethan, who is waiting for him to arrive and believes that this means he will be committed to her from now on; but this part of the story, however subtly rendered, is more predictable.

Ultimately, however, it is the weaving-together of the two plots that accounts for the strength of “Locke” – a small yet enormous drama, mundane and momentous all at once. The movie’s overall restraint, evident in Hardy’s performance (which is naturally limited mainly to his face and voice), is the source of its sweeping intensity. This intensity only grows as a result of Knight’s decision to condense the movie into the interior of a single moving car, where we encounter a single actor and the voices of various men, women and children. The voices belong to a gallery of capable actors, including Andrew Scott as Locke’s assistant, Ruth Wilson as his wife, and Olivia Colman as Bethan. The result is a musical tapestry of voices that give the movie much of its power and beauty.

“Locke” tells the story of a decent man who decides to do the right thing, even at enormous personal cost. This is a worthy theme, and Knight generally handles it with impressive intelligence. It is unfortunate that he occasionally ventures outside his direct realism into more symbolic terrain, such as the hero’s name, which points to his entrapment by his circumstances (and by his car). Also, Locke occasionally launches into eloquent monologues with a philosophical dimension; some of these we hear in voiceover, which is okay, but others he delivers to his own reflection in the rearview mirror – a screenwriting choice that I do not much like, since it always seems to me less than credible.

“Locke” may not be a great work, even if it is experimental; but it is certainly an interesting one, arousing our empathy through the choices it makes in presenting its hero. In other words, this is a movie worth seeing.