I have to admit I was reluctant to see Steven Knight’s Locke for two reasons. The minor one was that I gleaned from the trailer that this was some sort of cerebral Speed (I rarely read about a film before I see it), in which the hero, Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy), is forced to keep driving because of a ticking bomb in the trunk — or a ticking bomb somewhere else, or his family is being held hostage — all the while negotiating his/their survival on the car’s speakerphone. It isn’t that, but it sort of is: he is forced to drive, but it is for moral and compassionate reasons, not a life-threatening situation. The major reason I was reluctant to see this: It’s playing on the big, huge screen at the Cinerama Dome at the Arclight Hollywood, which means that if it isn’t a blockbuster — and it isn’t — it’s got to be so genius that it would likely thrust me into an existential funk that would make me want to throw in the towel on my own endeavors. I’m happy to say Locke isn’t that, either, but it is good. Above all, it is an audacious undertaking for a specialty film that will likely be platformed to a healthy number of screens nationwide.

I’m obliged to divulge many of the plot points, so if you’d like to be gently surprised, turn away now. TL;DR: It’s a subtle, well-written, somewhat emotional story, so minimalist it is modernist. If you’re a Tom Hardy fan, you’re going to wallow in his restrained, nuanced performance. A bonus is the perfect Welsh accent and cadence.

Like Robert Frost’s two paths diverging, large-scale construction supervisor Locke finds himself within the first few shots of film at a stoplight. He has the option to turn left and go home to normalcy, and ignore the plight of a woman he knocked up by accident seven months earlier while away from his presumably perfect family on a building site. Or he can do the right thing and turn right, to London and the lonely woman who is giving birth to his illegitimate child. In doing so, he risks losing everything. Goaded by an impatient truck, he takes the right turn.

The site that Locke is supervising will pour the concrete for the foundations of a massive high-rise at dawn. It’s the largest pour outside of military infrastructures in European history. By abandoning his post at the last crucial moment with so many elements of the project coming in, Locke will lose his job; a hundred million dollars is at risk if anything goes wrong. He also has to explain to his wife why he isn’t coming back — she and his teenaged sons are waiting for him with beer and sausages to watch an important soccer match. By being honest, Locke might lose them, too. (The fact that Locke wouldn’t have been able to watch the match with his family anyway because he would have had to be at the site preparing for the big pour is a large plot hole, but easily overlooked.)

Steven Knight is a screenwriter. The script for Locke is paramount, and that is a good thing for me — it should be for any movie where action or technology isn’t the real star of the show, but it is too often given short shift by directors who aren’t writers. But it’s hard for me as a screenwriter not to be aware of the devices employed to goose the drama. To wit, the stakes in Locke are ratcheted high, quickly, and very obviously. To me it’s like being a racing engineer who can hear the gears in the sports car being shifted up — it’s distracting. However, non-screenwriters won’t notice; it’s done effectively, and all eyes are on Hardy’s Locke, anyway, as they should be.

Tom Hardy Locke

I don’t know if there have been cries of misogyny, but I wouldn’t be surprised — they’d be well justified. As “the best man in England,” Locke is deeply principled, despite having cheated on his wife. Most men I know aspire to be this character, and succeed to one degree or other — he’s the hero everyman. Most men will forgive Locke his transgression, and it really is relatively minor if you change the accepted standard of marital behavior to match the reality of human nature, which is that monogamy is too rare in nature to be considered a sacred contract that can be violated. Locke is also deeply repentant. But the two women on the phone — his wife and the woman having his baby — are respectively unforgiving to the point that you hope such a good man walks away from her, or weak and defenseless — the new mother will not survive unless the Best Man in England comes to her rescue. Locke’s sons are chips off the old block, and all the other guys are stand-up characters, too, despite their weaknesses. Hardy also plays Locke as a levelheaded mensch who remains calm and even-keeled no matter the storm raging around him. The unfairness of women makes him cry. If I were a woman, I would take issue with all of this; I’m not and I do.

The device of pitting the deeply principled man against decisions that challenge his morality is solid and somewhat interesting. It does work to carry the film forward. I can only wonder what the French could have done with the proposed dynamics, though; something less obvious, I would imagine. Anglo-American post-sexual revolution neo-Puritanism is so black and white and be-buckled. Ho hum.

The film was shot over a week, which means either five or six days. This was to fit Hardy’s schedule in between the bigger films he is making. He only had two weeks available; one went to rehearsals, one to shooting. They shot the entire script from page one right to the end every day, using three cameras fixed to the car, while Knight directed from the low-bed truck towing Locke’s Beemer. That’s an interesting way to do it, very live theater. I probably wouldn’t have made that particular production choice — I would have done the obvious and broken the ninety-page script into six fifteen-page segments — but it works. (The insert shots that are not on Locke, not from the three cameras, must have been filmed afterwards, adding to the production time. Still, it’s impressive.)

The cinematography maximizes the moodiness of nighttime highway driving. I’m sure it’s hypnotic for people who don’t look at the way every image is composed and assembled. Knight and his cinematographer Haris Zambarloukas create a distinct look with out-of-focus raindrops, car lights, street lamps, with reflections upon reflections and through-the-window shots. The intimacy of the production has allowed for an intense scrutiny that works well visually. I found the overuse of dissolves distracting and unnecessary, but that’s the sort of stylistic choice that, again, only affects filmmakers.

In terms of plot, there were no surprises. I wasn’t bowled over by the script, not even the dialogue, although Locke does have a quick, poetic riff about the majesty of high-rise buildings that is quite pretty. The segment toward the end when Locke listens to a message from his youngest son is particularly jarring. I would have replaced the boy’s voice; his self-conscious, unnatural stop-and-start performance doesn’t work. The ending is pat, predictable in terms of where the story is headed. I found it unsatisfying.

I am unlikely ever to envy Knight his talent. Good.

If you’re looking for a Brit flick that will blow your mind and still haven’t seen Under the Skin (shame on you), see that. Save this for the flight to Europe.

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