Ivan Locke is behind the wheel and having a terrible day in the tense and engaging Locke. As played by Tom Hardy, he speaks in a clipped accent with a puppy-ish beard, at once endearing and intimidating. It's safe to say few other actors in Hardy’s generation could pull off the film's central stunt: the movie never lets Locke exit his car.
The few snippets of the story that we can gather is that he has only just received word that Bethan (Olivia Colman) is giving birth. She is not Locke’s wife, however, and her insistent “I love you”'s on the other line are only met with Locke's polite denials. It's unfortunate timing: not only has Locke not heard from this one-time fling in months, but his last-minute drive to England is keeping him from his job -- a multi-million-dollar concrete pour that requires permits, allocation of resources to certain departments, and a little bit of intra-department finessing.
While Bethan waits in the hospital for Locke to make his overnight drive, Locke juggles phone calls from the hospital, an over-tasked underling at work, and a boss with minimal patience for Locke's sudden lack of dependability. And then there are updates from back home. The “big game” blares on in the background as Locke's hurried, oblivious sons give him updates, hopeful and insistent that Dad return home. But wife Katrina (Ruth Wilson) can't wrap her head around how her loyal husband has hidden such a transgression from her. He winces when he speaks to her, as if accepting the lashes from her words about a mistake that he understands will mark him forever. Locke takes great pains to illustrate how the humane are really a handful of compromised choices away from being reviled by the ones they love.
Locke is an acting showcase, and because of that, the stakes are low and the suspense minimal. Locke receives snippets of the worst possible news early in the film, and the rest of the picture is spent watching this hyper-capable stud apply damage control. He juggles the phone calls just as well as writer-director Steven Knight parcels out the drama -- capably and confidently without leaving anything to chance. Knight's visuals actively capture the eye, as Locke bleeds in and out of the shadows, creating a disorienting sensation that clouds your thoughts about this man: is he telling the truth about this one-time affair? And why is he addressing his late father as if he were still there, in the backseat? Knight's argument seems to be not that Locke is dubious, but that nighttime drives bring the wolf out of a man. It's not a coincidence that when his visage recedes into the darkness, only the primitive whiskers on his face remain.
Knight, a longtime screenwriter behind Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, transitioned into directing with last year's Redemption. Seen side-by-side with Locke, they are two pieces of a whole: both are modest dramas about an exceedingly masculine personality atoning for past sins. In that film's case, the gentleman in question was Jason Statham, and the film feels forcefully guided by an invisible hand pushing the picture towards typically simplistic Statham action, a hand belonging perhaps to producers, perhaps to test audiences, perhaps Statham himself.
Hardy is a different type of actor, maybe not exactly the type to become a star: he's more than happy to envelope this character's features in darkness, figuratively or otherwise. As he negotiates between phone lines, a small part of the viewer waits for another shoe to drop, waits for the revelation that he's got a body in the trunk, or that the concrete plans are meant to be sabotaged. There's never a hint within the movie that these are possibilities. But Hardy's too good an actor to keep you from denying it.