by Matt J. Popham
Ivan Locke has made a decision.
A highly-regarded construction foreman, a loving husband, and a committed father, he has put all his professional and domestic obligations on hold to drive to London, where a woman he barely knows is giving birth to his illegitimate child – the result of a single night of regretted infidelity. Stephen Knight’s intense and involving LOCKE drops us into the passenger seat beside its title character, and asks us to remain there for 90 minutes of real time, while he weathers a barrage of emotionally charged phone calls – from his shell-shocked family, furious bosses, outraged employees, and his unborn child’s increasingly hysterical mother – attempting to contain the fallout from his decision. There are no other sets or locations. No other characters appear on screen.
It’s puzzling that even those critics lauding Knight’s sophomore directorial effort seem compelled to describe the film’s confined formal strategy as a “gimmick.” Traditionally, a gimmick is a device designed to provide an unfair competitive edge, but as the latest reboot of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles battles Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy for top spot at the box office, it’s hard to believe LOCKE’s stark cinematic structure would play as anything other than a handicap. It’s also the sort of lazy and reductive epithet one would expect from more dismissive critics, uninterested in examining the whys and wherefores of Knight’s approach. Art is choice, after all (or, at least, the illusion of it), and the film’s austere aesthetic is more than mere technical swagger or academic rigor; its tight focus is decisive and deliberate. Because what unravels during LOCKE’s hour and a half is not its plot, but its protagonist…
In the driver’s seat, both literally and dramatically, Tom Hardy delivers a performance as expertly contained as the film. His Locke is affably authoritative, endowed with a sure-footed confidence and sturdy composure, initially offering warm, but firm reassurances to the parade of put-out and panicked callers struggling to make sense of his sudden desertion. But as things fall apart, his calm center cannot hold, and with rising intensity, Hardy exposes the cracks in Locke’s cool façade, revealing his private fears, hidden vulnerabilities, and deeper motivations. It’s a layered, controlled, compelling performance, akin to an emotional strip-tease, as Locke is gradually stripped of his illusions: that he is doing the right thing, that he can minimize the damage he has caused, that he can maintain control of his circumstances, his life, or himself.
Defying the limitations of scene and setting, Knight keeps his camera active and his compositions poignant. The film’s visual dynamic keeps us at a very slight remove, often studying Locke’s mirrored reflection, or watching him through his windows while the reflections of passing cars and streetlamps dance across his face. We are allowed to sympathize, but never quite identify with Locke, which only intensifies his situation’s tragic impact. But Knight’s framing also underscores the irony of Locke’s situation and the allegorical intent at the heart of LOCKE’s narrative design: Though he spends the film continually in motion, he is trapped. Though constantly in conversation, he is isolated and alone. And though he is sitting in the driver’s seat, he has no control. Ivan Locke is not a man at a crossroads; he’s a man hurtling forward on a road to hell paved with his good intentions, his life disintegrating in his wake. As the lights, guardrails, and other vehicles that tumble past his windows in all directions seem to indicate, all that’s left of his story is falling action.