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Locke (2014)

2F3A9835.jpgDIRECTOR: Steven Knight

CAST: Tom Hardy, voices of Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott, Ben Daniels, Tom Holland, Bill Milner

REVIEW:

So, how engaging can a movie be centering entirely on 90 minutes of a man driving in a car and talking on the phone, with the other characters only present via their voices?  As it turns out, Locke is often surprisingly absorbing in the moment, even if it’s ultimately unable to withstand the onset of monotony.  A small, low-key, low-budget indie movie initially opening at independent film festivals in the UK, Locke moved on to a limited theatrical release in the US amid positive critical reviews  and a much-praised performance by Tom Hardy, but the prospect of spending an hour and a half watching a film in which nothing happens but a man driving in a car dealing with a series of personal crises on the phone is not a premise to draw mainstream crowds.  Locke may be a critical darling, but it’s strictly indie art-house fare, and while an intriguing cinematic experiment, its gimmicky premise ultimately wears thin.

After a brief opening shot at a large construction site, we spend the next 90 minutes driving down the highway in a car with Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy).  Ivan has a reputation as the steadiest, most reliable construction foreman in Britain, but he inexplicably jumps in his car in the middle of the night and embarks on a long drive from Birmingham to London on the eve of the biggest project of his career, handing the reins over to a jittery subordinate and trying to talk him through the process over the phone.  Ivan’s reasons for his out-of-character behavior is not immediately clear, but it’s soon revealed that the happily-married family man with a wife of fifteen years and two sons had a moment of weakness months ago and now the woman he had a one-night stand with is in the hospital giving birth to his child, and Ivan feels honor-bound to be there for her.  When his superiors find out he’s abandoned his post, Ivan is fired.  Bound by the same unshakable sense of duty that’s driving him to the hospital, Ivan stays on the phone with his subordinate even after his termination, determined to make sure the concrete pouring goes right, but this may be easier said than done.  As the night and drive wears on, Ivan’s problems keep piling on.  When he explains to his wife why he won’t be home, she has a breakdown and eventually tells him he is not welcome back.  His stressed-out subordinate starts hitting the bottle.  At the hospital, the increasingly alarmed woman runs into birth complications.  Paperwork technicalities arise with the road closures required for the construction, forcing Ivan to juggle phone calls to and from his subordinate anxiously awaiting needed information, and a city councilman irritated at being bothered off-the-clock who’s not in a hurry to hand it over.  As Ivan’s voyage brings him closer to London, it becomes increasingly clear that this ninety minute road trip is seeing both the personal and professional unraveling of everything he cares about.

Steven Knight’s directing style is sparse and non-flashy.  The camera only cuts away from Hardy’s face to look out the windshield and show glimpses of streetlights, police cars speeding by, trucks passing, etc.  For a while, there’s something almost dreamily mesmerizing about the lights drifting slowly past in endless rows.  For better or worse, the movie captures the dreariness of a long night drive, and whether Knight intends it or not, there’s an unacknowledged underlying tension about whether Ivan will reach his destination safely.  Driving a major highway at night can be dangerous, especially when the driver is emotional and preoccupied.  But there is only so far a premise this constrained can stretch itself, and even at a slim runtime of 90 minutes, Locke‘s drive gets tedious and repetitive and starts to feel interminable before the end.  Even a few scattered short breaks—the perpetually-sniffling Ivan stopping to get cold medicine at a drug store, stopping for a road accident, being pulled over by a policeman, etc.—would have been welcome to give a speck of variety.  Knight electing to spend the entire movie focusing on nothing but a man in a car on a phone was a ballsy artistic move, but it doesn’t truly break beyond its gimmicky feel.

In fairness, there are times when Locke engages and occasionally even absorbs.  The movie rather inexplicably being promoted as a “thriller” does it no favors, because nothing that can be called “thrilling” happens (unless the viewer gets a sadistic rush from watching someone’s life systematically implode).  The series of personal and professional crises Ivan is barraged with are rather mundane—paying the price of cheating on his wife, missing paperwork, etc.—but the phone conversations are well-written and there are a couple effective emotional moments, especially when Ivan’s insistence that he only cheated once in his 15 years of marriage prompts his wife to reply that “the difference between never and once is the difference between good and bad”, and a late scene in which his young son calls, desperately seeking some sense of normalcy by gushing about the championship soccer match he’s missing, and a choked-up Ivan is unable to respond.  Despite never appearing in the flesh, the other characters are convincingly-realized.  Ivan’s wife’s progression over the night from disbelief to heartbreak to cold dismissal feels believable, as does his sons’ desperate attempts to act like everything is normal.  None of this is anything extraordinarily complex, but Knight has a good touch for writing believable dialogue, and little touches make the characters feel real, even if Ivan is the only one we ever physically see.

About the only jarring aspect is Ivan’s imagined one-sided conversations with his late father (visualized as Ivan ranting into the mirror at the empty backseat), whom he holds in deep scorn and strives to be better than (“The Lockes were a long line of shit”, he snarls at one point, “And I straightened them out”).  While these scenes give insight into the main character and are the only outward sign that the endlessly cool and composed Ivan might be coming a little unglued, and in Hardy’s hands are about as well-acted as they can be, this feels like a gimmicky plot device.

Locke03One-man shows like this can sink or swim on the lead performance, and a scruffy, toned-down Tom Hardy makes about the most out of the tight constraints of his material as anyone would have been likely to do.  Hardy’s low-key, subdued performance and stoic reserve works as the solid grounding anchor that the film needs, projecting a calm, quiet authority that one might expect from the steadiest construction foreman in Britain, and he affects a soft, mellifluous Welsh accent that’s worlds away from the deep, gruff hillbilly grumble of Forrest Bondurant in last year’s Lawless (by his own account, Hardy partially based Ivan’s voice on Richard Burton).  Anyone who’s seen Bronson knows that Hardy is fully capable of throwing volcanic rages, but the moments where the soft-spoken, mild-mannered, unruffled Ivan loses his cool are few and fleeting.  The British thespian has become known in recent years for a string of tight-lipped hard-asses in films like Warrior and Lawless, but Locke is a talky, entirely dialogue-driven role, and Ivan is not a tough guy (in fact, he might be the most “average Joe” Hardy has ever played).  Ironically, some of Hardy’s best acting scenes are the ones most awkward in context, when he’s snarling venom to the unseen ghost of his father.  Hardy is great at radiating intensity and anger, and not quite as good at playing vulnerability, with his stoic reserve keeping Ivan at a bit of an emotional distance, where we understand his plight but the character’s demeanor is too cold for us to really feel it with him.  Hardy’s most vulnerable moment is a wordless one late in the movie, when a tearful Ivan is unable to speak and provide his confused and distraught son with the comfort he is desperately seeking.  It’s in this moment that we sense the stoic, unflappable Ivan is finally broken and defeated.  This is the second virtual one-man show Hardy has starred in (2008’s Bronson wasn’t quite a one-man show, but Hardy was the only actor with significant screentime), and the second time it has been met with critical acclaim (Hardy’s performances in both Bronson and Locke were nominated for the British Independent Film Award for Best Actor, which he took home for Bronson).  The other actors, including Olivia Colman (as Bethan, the woman having Ivan’s child), Ruth Wilson (as his wife Katrina), Andrew Scott (as his subordinate Donal), Ben Daniels (as his boss Gareth), and Tom Holland and Bill Milner (as his sons) are all convincing even if only their voices are present onscreen.  

Part of the problem with Locke, other than its physical limitations, is that it fails to generate much suspense.  Listening to lengthy diatribes about the right kind of concrete, or the missing paperwork crisis, is not riveting cinema.  A movie that’s going to try to keep us engaged in a car with a man on the phone for an hour and a half needs a gripping premise, and while we understand how the birth of Ivan’s illegitimate child and the construction site problems are devastating for him, they’re too mundane to make this the riveting thrill ride some of its admirers have labeled it.  Additionally, it can sometimes be hard to feel a lot of sympathy for Ivan, partly because of Tom Hardy’s cool, reserved demeanor, partly because he has flung himself into both of his problems of his own free will, and partly because he sometimes seems more devoted to the concrete pour than about anything else (we feel his wife may have a legitimate point when she accuses him of being more in love with his building projects than with her).  This may be the first movie where an actor has ever had the opportunity to emphatically shout a line like “you do it for the concrete!”, and suffice to say it is not as passionate a subject to us as it obviously is for Ivan.  Time and again—mostly in his self-justifying tirades to the ghost of his father—Ivan likens fixing his personal life to fixing buildings, unshakably convinced that he can apply the same relentless practical logic to people that he does to plaster and concrete, and is slow to realize that people and emotions are not as simple as his concrete, and his stoic practicality and sheer force of will might not be enough to fix his broken home.  The central moral quandary has some intrigue; the great irony is that it was a moment of moral weakness that led Ivan to cheat on his wife, but it is his unshakable sense of honor that drives him to let it ruin him (some viewers will no doubt want to slap Ivan and say he should have just ignored Bethan’s phone call, kept his job and his family, and moved on).  This, and other elements, are not without interest, but ultimately none of it amounts to enough to make the drive worth going on.  The ending is an anti-climax; there is a small note of catharsis, but major plot strands are left weakly-resolved at best.  I think the film could have finished stronger if SPOILER WARNING Knight had broken his one-man show rule and let us see Ivan entering the hospital and seeing his baby instead of merely hearing its cries on the phone.  One has to give Knight credit for resolutely sticking to his format from beginning to end, but it ultimately proves unsustainable.

Steven Knight’s past films (including the thriller Eastern Promises) have been unconventional and intriguing but heavily-flawed, and Locke, while even less cinematically conventional, fits that description, and in Tom Hardy he found a leading man who likewise often seems to spurn conventional mainstream roles.  However, while audacity and willingness to take the road less traveled are laudable qualities, they do not always produce strong results.  Locke is an intriguing cinematic experiment, and made a strong impression on some viewers, but for me it remains a flawed experiment.

* * 1/2

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