It was a dreary and rainy night when I went to go see Steven Knight’s Locke in a somewhat dingy theater. About halfway through the film, a few drops of rain began leaking through the ceiling, adding a sense of dread and inevitability to a movie that was already filled to the brim with it.
When you watch the trailer of the movie Locke, you think that you’re settling in for a can’t-breathe, on-the-edge-of-your-seat thriller. It is, but not at all in the traditional sense. While it’s technically a “car movie”, it’s nowhere close to the Fast and the Furious way.It’s a psychological thriller, but not one with any violence or unexpected twists and turns. Actually, it’s one long, straight road to a predetermined destination. It’s a slow burn in the way that a two-hour car drive can be when you’re in a hurry. And yet, against the odds, it manages to be utterly fascinating and unbelievably captivating.
In Locke, Tom Hardy stars as a man (Ivan Locke) on the ride of his life – or, rather, the worst ride of it. At the beginning of the film, Ivan Locke seems to be a successful, respectable and wealthy man, in all respects. In his professional life, he’s an essential construction manager on the eve of the largest concrete pour in the history of Europe. In his personal life, he’s a loving family man, adored by his wife and football-loving (Americans, read: soccer-loving) kids, all of whom are expecting him home this evening. He’s a man who has his shit together, a man who more or less has it all. And it’s everything that he has that gives the film its stakes, because what he has is what he stands to lose over the course of one fateful drive that takes up the length of the movie.
Yes, Tom Hardy’s Locke has it all, but at the beginning of the film, he gets into his car, comes to a crossroads and drives away from it, without ever looking back. Every facet of his life, his home, his family, his work – it’s all in Birmingham. Locke, however, is driving to London, where a woman who is not his wife is prematurely going into labor with a child that is his. For Locke, it couldn’t be happening at a worse time. But he feels a moral obligation to be there for this woman whom he hardly knows, for this child that was certainly never planned. Once he comes to that crossroads, Ivan Locke is a man who has made his decision, and he’s sticking with it until the bitter end – consequences be damned.
Although Locke stands to lose so much of what he currently possesses, he’s more focused on what’s at risk for his unborn child, the worst of which, to Locke, is the reality of being “a bastard”. By archaic definition, that’s exactly what this child will be, but Locke is determined to prevent the natural effects that come along with being born out of wedlock. The concept of a “bastard” is a central motif to the film. Locke has a Game of Thrones-like distaste for bastards. We eventually learn, through Shakespeare-esque soliloquies directed to his rearview mirror, that Ivan Locke, like Jon Snow, is a bastard himself. When he’s not on the phone, trying to manage his messy personal and business affairs or staring helplessly at the traffic and road ahead of him, Locke is raging against the ghost of his absent father. He screams, he taunts, he pontificates, he smirks and he rages more. He makes the case that he’ll be a better father by being a presence in the child’s life. He explains the philosophy behind his decision making through clunky metaphors involving concrete pouring. It’s one of the only forms of catharsis he has, and he becomes increasingly reliant on it throughout the drive, just as he becomes increasingly reliant on the cough syrup he periodically guzzles along the way.
The film is obsessed with the idea of the intentions and actions and decisions that define a person. As opposed to the generally accepted idea that a person is defined by the sum of these things, Locke asks what if people are really defined by just one? Can a person be defined by the uncontrollable circumstances of their birth? Should they be defined by one mistake? Or, rather, should the person be defined by how they handle that mistake? Do intentions play any part in the equation at all? At different times, Locke addresses nearly every angle to these thought-provoking questions.
As intriguing as the premise sounds and as enticing as the themes may seem, the movie wouldn’t work without two things: the impressive direction of Steven Knight and the masterful performance of Tom Hardy. Tom Hardy is the only actor onscreen in the whole movie. Stuck behind the wheel of the car the entire time, there’s very little for Hardy to do, which is both the point and what makes his performance so remarkable. Somehow Hardy manages to do to so much with so little. Though, physically, he can do nothing but sit, Hardy’s Locke manages to play a multitude of roles while chatting on the phone. One minute, he’s the all-business deal breaker; the next, an attentive father, assuring his son he’ll be home in the morning. After his son goes back to the game, and his colleague does his bidding, he’s playing the role of insubordinate employee, getting chewed out by his boss, who’s listed, not by accident, in his phone directory as “Bastard”. But that’s not all, he also has to be the firm but determined bearer of bad news to his wife (“I need you to hold it together for me.” “I’ll fix it. It will all go back to normal.”), as well as the bright voice of optimism: It will be okay, he’s always telling his one time lover. As the film shows, it’s a lot for one man to handle, even for as talented of a fixer as Ivan Locke, but as an actor, Hardy seems to effortlessly shift gears.
Although Hardy is probably onscreen 90% of the time, the camera never stays at one angle for very long. It mixes extreme close-ups with medium shots, looks at Locke from his side mirrors, and then from his rearview mirror. The headlights and the streetlights reflect on his windshield, his windows and the shine of his car itself. They grow blurrier as he drives. He might simply be driving in one direction, on a perfectly realistic straight-shot of a drive, but the effects of Knight’s direction are so dizzying and disorienting that it all begins to feel surreal. Occasionally, the camera switches to a first-person view; we see what Locke sees. It becomes increasingly difficult to see anything at all.
As Locke’s drive goes on and his life spirals out of control, the viewer becomes more and more paranoid. Something bad is going to happen, you think, like a car crash. He’s not going to make it. Time, ever so gradually, is running out. Drip. Drip. Drip. In the moment, it’s terrifying to think that if he doesn’t make it in time, it will all go to hell. But perhaps it’s more unsettling to consider what it might mean if, for one reason, one decision, one circumstance or another, it already has.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently writes about sports and culture for Yahoo Sports and Yahoo Voices, and previously covered the Carolina Panthers for Football.com during the 2013 season, as well as college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time in the near future.