Steven Knight’s Locke begins with its eponymous character, a British skyscraper-construction foreman named Ivan Locke, getting in his well-appointed BMW to drive to London to resolve a pressing personal problem. With the action of the film transpiring in real time, less than 90 minutes later it ends with Locke still in his car; the camera never reaches beyond the interior and the immediate exterior of the BMW. The minimalist plot, technique, and setting of the film allow for maximal exploration of the personal and interior life of the main character, who is facing a moral crisis that threatens to undo his work, his family, and his sense of his own integrity. As Ivan Locke, Tom Hardy, from Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, gives a mesmerizing and inspiring performance; struggling desperately to regain his bearings and to reassure others who now have reason to doubt him, he is the picture of a soul hoping against hope that he can set things right.
Ivan Locke is a highly regarded and punctilious foreman who, as the film begins, is preparing for a huge job early the next morning. His boss, Gareth (Ben Daniels), is irate that Ivan is abandoning his job, even for one day, overseeing “the biggest concrete pour in the history of Europe, barring nuclear and military.” Another obligation he will have to forgo is one to his family, which is awaiting his return for dinner, after which he had planned to watch a highly anticipated televised football match with his wife, Katrina (Ruth Wilson), and sons Eddie (Tom Holland) and Sean (Bill Milner). In an early phone exchange, Eddie urges his father to come home by proclaiming, “Mom got sausage.”
As he drives toward London, Ivan takes calls on his hands-free dashboard phone. The longer he drives, the more persistent, more rapid, and more emotionally wrenching are the phone calls. He juggles one crisis after another. The conversations on the home front become increasingly strained and sorrowful. Meanwhile, the work calls are alternately frenetic and comic, as Ivan tries to coach from a distance his inexperienced assistant, Donal (Andrew Scott), whose drinking habits and incompetence make each call a potential report of disaster. Nearly every call from Donal, whose bad habits are tempered by his naïve enthusiasm, provides some degree of welcome comic relief.
There is a claustrophobic feel to the film, visually focused as it is on the interior of a car with a lone occupant traveling at night on alternately deserted and busy highways. Locke is less like a standard film than like a one-man mobile theater performance, and its physical setting is nearly a perfect mirror of its psychological terrain. Occasional camera shifts to the exterior of the car and ambient sounds of other vehicles heighten the tension, especially as Locke becomes distracted from the road by phone calls or by the attempt to read documents he has with him on his journey. A crash seems almost inevitable. Here again, the physical mirrors and intensifies the personal and psychological, as we see Locke tempted to anger and despair.
The film could be seen as making a statement about the human creature in transit, more connected than ever, via technology, and yet somehow adrift, disconnected from place and from others. But this is to move too quickly in the direction of the film as allegory or extended metaphor. What makes the film work is the intensely personal drama of a very peculiar main character. Locke is an everyman; under duress at work and home, he is called away from both at an inopportune moment for reasons that are a mix of the base and the noble.
The basic lines of the plot are evident fairly early on in the film. Although I do not want to reveal too much, it is important to note that the personal crisis Locke is facing has its origin in a single act of adultery of which his wife is now aware. As she puts it, the difference between never and once is the difference between good and bad. He readily concedes the point even as he begs for a second chance and strains to convince her that he will make things right.
The way Locke insists on fulfilling his obligations even as he drives away from them makes this an unusually and deeply moral film. It is the drama of a person of integrity, whose moral failing has put him in the position of what traditional ethicists like Thomas Aquinas call perplexity: a state in which, because of an antecedent act of vice, no matter what one does next, one will do wrong and cause harm. Many of our most compelling dramas depict the way in which individuals in such circumstances of perplexity fail to recover. Their lives spiral out of control as circumstances and unintended consequences render them powerless in the face of destructive forces. Or they take control and elect to redouble their efforts in the direction of evil.
Locke refuses these options. When something is wrong, he says in one of his imagined dialogues with his father, the less-than-happy memory of whom haunts Ivan’s entire life, “you straighten things out.” As is hinted by the film’s one-word title, Ivan’s family name, the film is about something very old-fashioned — namely, family honor. In the course of his imagined conversations with his father, who abandoned him, he shouts that the Locke name has meant “sh*t” for generations but that he is setting things right.
The risk of a film like this is that the main character comes across as too earnest to be attractive or too morally upright to be credible. Although Locke is not entirely free of earnestness, Hardy plays the part with a successful balance of roughness and integrity. And Knight does a marvelous job combining innovative filmmaking technique with a lively ethical sensibility.
— Thomas Hibbs is dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. An updated and expanded version of his book Shows about Nothing was published in 2012 by Baylor University Press.