Who needs elaborate stunt-driven films like Need for Speed and The Fast and the Furious when driving at normal speed has its own world of dangers?
Writer/director Steven Knight taps into a disorienting experience where we do not have control over the driver’s seat with Locke, a taut new thriller that doubles as a searing, absorbing one-man show of sorts. Knight understands how to generate suspense by containing the action to the driver’s seat of a BMW SUV, as the camera bumps and swerves just as a car would, creating a visceral sensation. However, we are the passengers and the journey is beyond our control.
In the driver’s seat is Tom Hardy, the muscular British actor most recognized for wearing a face-hugging mask as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. He delivers a tour de force performance here as Ivan Locke, a calm construction site director who has many phone calls to make during an 85-minute trip into London. The film begins with Locke climbing into his car, and it sticks with the titular character for the entire runtime.
Locke is driving along a highway, on his way to Bethan (played by Broadchurch’s Olivia Colman, whose voice emits through the car’s speaker, along with the rest of the cast). Bethan was a co-worker who Locke shared a one-time fling with nine months earlier and she is about to give birth to his child. Locke feels some responsibility to be at her side at the London hospital. However, he has not yet told his wife Katrina (Ruth Wilson) about the affair, but plans on finally breaking the news during this busy highway drive.
Meanwhile, his trip to London means that Locke will not be on the site the following day to help lay one of the biggest cement pours in history. His boss, Gareth (Ben Daniels), is irritated that Locke abandoned the job at the last minute without giving a sufficient answer, and that he left the job with a rookie, Donal (Andrew Scott, best known as the devilish Moriarty from BBC’s Sherlock). Locke also breaks his promise with son Eddie (The Impossible’s Tom Holland) to watch a soccer match, as his paternal guilt reaches its breaking point.
From the time Locke puts the car in drive, the film accelerates along with the character. Knight’s script clearly lays out the various predicaments that besiege Locke, all from the comfort of his BMW’s cabin. With the exception of a few hotheaded soliloquies to a back-seat audience, virtually all the dialogue is between Hardy and the voices on the other line.
The writing here is both tense and crisp, filled with an obvious but welcome metaphor – of Locke as a construction director. It is an apt job for a person who seems to have everything solid. It is a long road to ruin, however, for the beleaguered cement expert, and the cracks are starting to show. “You sound different,” a few of the characters tell him. It is because he is a changing man, with an unstable home life, a job in jeopardy and a kid who he does not want to disappoint. Locke’s car is might be on cruise control, but his life is spiralling out of control.
Hardy is absolutely disarming in the driver’s seat, pushing the limits of what any actor can do while trapped within the buckled confines of one location without overselling his expressions. His furrowed face, moving on a wide emotional range, mesmerizes. The tone of his voice, smooth and seething, evokes the madness that wrestles within him as his character micro-manages many major issues in his life. He has to work through it all over the phone, through the conviction and persuasion of his voice. Hardy shows us how deep acting can come from the slightest shift in tone and volume. He almost never takes his eyes on the road while going through a plethora of emotions and as a result, it is hard to take your eyes off of him.
Despite the supporting performances consisting entirely of audio clips, the rest of the cast also creates rich characters from the other line. Ruth Wilson is especially wrenching as Katrina, trying to figure out why her husband is not returning home to be with his family.
For a few minutes, Locke feels like it could work better as a promotion for BMWs, in the same vein as the company’s “The Hire” shorts from the early 2000s. Despite a few nods to the car’s sleek capabilities though – the driving database that Locke uses, with its “call waiting” monotone a welcome comic relief – our eyes are gripped throughout to the man who’s in charge of the wheel.
Knight uses various directing flourishes, most of which do not feel too indulgent, to vary the film’s aesthetic as the story remains restricted to the front seat. Through superimposition of the cars on the road, neon deflecting off the glass and putting the camera in the driver’s point-of-view so that our eyes are on the road, the director adds a kinetic variety to the contained plot that does not waver our focus from the story.
Another interesting thing to note about the film is that the more wound up Locke gets as his car picks up speed and the pressure mounts, Knight takes us closer into his headspace. This works on two levels: it keeps us gripped in the protagonist’s conflicts as we are hooked into Locke’s psychological chaos, and it takes our eyes off the road, disorienting us to imagine that the swerving, speeding character is about to have a physical collision atop his mental one. By avoiding a shot that shows us what Locke is looking at, we are locked into his psychological dilemmas and locked away from the relief of a shot that could show how well (or poorly) he is steering.
Knight, best known as the screenwriter of Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, has written a minimal, if mesmerizing thriller with Locke, as the intensity never brakes. However, this is Hardy’s show from the first frame, capably steering a story filmed in one setting filled with dialogue about concrete and infidelity into one of the most gripping rides that a small budget can provide.
Locke is a minimalist near-masterwork, throttled by a tour de force performance from Tom Hardy and Steven Knight’s smart direction.