Written and Directed by: Steven Knight
Starring: Tom Hardy, Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott
Ivan Locke is a devoted family man and respected construction engineer. This makes it all the more out-of-character when he abandons his biggest project the night before a critical stage. Instead of heading home, Ivan commences the long drive south to London and a series of telephone calls to deliberately dismantle everything he has worked hard to achieve.
Locke falls into the entertainment classification of extreme ‘bottle drama'; a single location: the interior of Ivan’s SUV on his non-stop rush down the M1 motorway; and a single performer: Tom Hardy as Ivan, supported only by the voices of the characters who come and go in the series of phone calls by which the plot plays itself out. It shares this same conceit with movies such as Phone Booth and All Is Lost but its cinematic twin is most definitely Buried when it comes to strict adherence to setting and narrative device. But whereas Buried had a mystery underpinning the situation and a race-against-time element to generate tension, Locke has no such genre intentions.
The set-up screams ‘high concept’ and this will likely lead viewers to expect twisty turns, bombshell revelations and some climactic resolution at the end of the metaphorical and literal road. None of the above is to be found in Locke so look elsewhere if you want a Buried / Speed crossover. Locke is ultimately–and perhaps solely–a character study.
If I choose to reveal the key plot elements here — Relax! I won’t — I could argue that they are laid out pretty much entirely in the first 10 minutes of the movie. The dots are not hard to join and Ivan has pretty much connected it all for you by the 30 minute mark. Thereafter, the remaining hour of what is essentially a real-time unfolding of the story is concerned merely with the ‘whys’ of Ivan’s decisions with him trying to solve mini-crises that develop at his work site following his abrupt departure and at his intended destination where his presence is desperately required.
Therein lies the central failing of the movie. From the get-go, Ivan has set his mind to his course of action and will not be diverted from it, no matter the personal and professional cost to all concerned. The absence of any potential ‘will-he, won’t-he’ moments and the lack of any apparent wavering on Ivan’s part all drain the movie of dramatic and emotional tension and viewers have to rely purely on making an empathic connection to Ivan’s plight based on their own experiences and attitudes, always a risky proposition in scripted drama. It’s explicitly stated that Ivan himself even has no real emotional stake in the situation which has prompted all this drama in the first place so it will be hard for some viewers to root for a successful outcome to that thread. Equally the damage he’s done to his work situation is a fait-accompli to Ivan and any subsequent fallout will only be detrimental to a handful of minor off-camera characters. Emotional stakes were hard to latch onto for this viewer.
Only the conversations between Ivan and the wife and sons he is betraying have any emotional heft. The exchanges between Hardy and the actress playing his wife on the other end of the line (what little fun to be had was my trying to guess the names behind the familiar voices of Mrs. Locke and Ivan’s hapless Irish work lackey Donal) are nuanced and moving. Indeed, the one moment on which the drama might have pivoted involves the single intersection between Ivan’s personal and work crises. At a crucial juncture, a choice arises and Ivan is gifted with an opportunity to take the course of his uncertain future in a new direction. Sadly, his resolution is unwavering. He doesn’t even blink as he immediately spurns it. Even then, the dilemma resolves itself moments later and we have resumed the straight-line course towards Ivan’s inevitable fate.
The only thing not straight-lined about Locke is Ivan’s spiralling psychological state. It takes big acting shoulders to support a plausible representation of a fragile psyche and Tom Hardy does the heavy lifting here with aplomb. His usual high testosterone onscreen persona is buried beneath a scraggy beard and soft Welsh accent. Ivan is a man struggling to keep from coming apart at the seams and Hardy is literally acting head-and-shoulders (sometimes hands too) above anything he’s done previously. The only false note in the script which lets him down is the device of Locke occasionally ranting to the spectre of his dead father in the back seat. It’s an expositionary means to allow him to reveal the psychological causality of his actions but its very nature demands that Hardy play it as one-note-crazy. A better — and more consistent with the concept — approach might have been to have Ivan occasionally telephone a Samaritans or other crisis-hotline operator and share his daddy issues with a stranger with whom he could not so easily go full Looney Tunes.
In the same clumsy vein, Locke is happy to explicitly hammer out its themes for the audience rather than allow them the joy of self-discovery. Ivan has spent a career constructing buildings which last. He knows that the slightest flaw in their foundations can topple the mightiest of them. I believe the audience would have spotted the metaphor without the need to wedge it into a pep-talk to Donal. In All Is Lost, Robert Redford’s ‘the man’ said next-to-nothing and thereby allowed the audience to project and speculate. Contrastingly, Ivan isn’t done until he has earnestly explained himself to every one of his callers, leaving little room for ambiguity and interpretation. Whether or not you like this version of a bottled character study will depend on your taste for what’s in the bottle. Pass me another cider there, Donal. Slainté! — Mike Reilly