The best man in England has the worst day of his life: Locke is at once a filmmaking gimmick, a crass manipulation, and one of the absolute finest movies of 2014.
Written and directed by Steven Knight
With Tom Hardy (Ivan Locke), Ruth Wilson (Katrina Locke), Tom Holland (Eddie Locke), Olivia Colman (Bethan), Andrew Scott (Donal), Ben Daniels (Gareth)
Spoiler alert: moderate
"What if a writer is attempting to create a story where nothing much happens? Where people don't change, they don't have any epiphanies, they struggle, and are frustrated—more a reflection of the real world?"
"The real world... the real fucking world? Nothing happens in the world? Are you out of your fucking mind?... Every fucking day, somewhere in the world, somebody sacrifices his life to save someone else. Every fucking day, someone, somewhere takes a conscious decision to destroy someone else. People find love, people lose it... If you can't find that stuff in life, then you, my friend, don't know crap about life! And why the fuck are you wasting my two precious hours with your movie?"
Locke is a movie about a guy driving, talking on his phone, for a little less than 85 minutes. Nothing much happens. I don't think anyone had any epiphanies. They certainly struggle; they are certainly frustrated. It's about life. It's a miracle.
Ivan Locke has built a life, because that is what he does. He has built a family, a wife and two sons; he has built skyscrapers, and he is building another one now, as the foreman overseeing the foundation of 55-story highrise going up in England. The critical concrete pour happens tomorrow. He knows he must be there to direct it, and he knows he will not be.
As his superior curses his name, as his subordinate begs him to tell him what to do, as his overbosses fire him out of hand, he still refers to the structure as his building. Ivan takes responsibility for everything, and till today this has been easy for him, for he is a man who has made, it seems, only one mistake in his entire existence.
Seven months ago, he was away on another job; he met a woman, who was lonely, who felt old; he felt sorry for her, and he was drunk; who could have predicted that a woman of 43 years could conceive? Now he must take responsibility for that, too, for the baby is coming now, two months ahead of schedule, two months ahead of his careful plans for revelation and reconciliation. As his wife screams at him, as his elder son comes to realize that their family is collapsing, as the mother of his new child vainly begs him to lie and tell her he loves her, he still drives on toward London and the baby that he says—without malice—is his fault.
It is never directly referenced, but he also has a terrible cold. Obviously this is the very least of his problems. Like the bigger ones, it continually gets worse.
Ivan understands that his life has been destroyed, and Locke is the story of his attempt to rebuild it, as he would anything else. You might even come to believe that he can, no matter how impossible that seems.
Of course, Locke is not, exactly, about life as it is lived, given that so many interesting and awful things are happening all at once. To call Locke "heightened" would be to understate the matter. This is a very good thing. Steven Knight's film recalls, fiercely once I recognized it, nothing so much as Gravity. Cosmetically, Locke lacks that film's visceral impact, oppressive lethality, and formal bona fides; but the similarities go right to the bone.
Like Sandra Bullock's space odyssey, Locke is quite nearly a one-human show. It's Tom Hardy's movie to lose then—and he never comes close. Locke studies its character like an insect under glass; the words are Knight's, and they are golden, but Hardy is undeniably the demiurge that brings Ivan to life. Hardy is a quiet spectacle, unfolding over an hour and a half, and one cannot turn away.
Hardy constructs Ivan fastidiously, brick-by-brick, with an understated performance that somehow encompasses repression, fury, love, guilt, self-righteousness, megalomania, and finally an abiding decency, without a single discordant note. His flattened but nuanced delivery even salvages humor from the crumbling edifice that surrounds him. (Also noteworthy, whether it be a tic suggested by Knight or a business all Hardy's own, but Locke is the first movie I've seen that gets that to roll up one's shirtsleeves is to enter a never-ending battle against both physics and material science.)
It almost makes up for the dire antirealism of a plot turn that depends heavily on Locke's subordinate not having access to a very important file. But Hardy takes us the rest of the way, for with him we can believe that this is a world with Bluetooth set-ups for cars, but not Microsoft Sharepoint for hundred million dollar building projects.
What's practically subversive about Knight and Hardy's creation is that he is a construction, not a deconstruction. Ivan is a fascinating character, and possessed of flaws that will ultimately result in something not entirely unlike complete self-destruction. Yet he is yet devoid of anything that one could possibly despise, and his flaws are, in truth, what we would call virtues. I don't think the film disagrees.
Put aside, for the moment, his infidelity. Yes, if "the difference between once and never is the difference between good and bad," as his wife succinctly puts it, then he must be bad; and I would hardly suggest he continues to deserve his wife's trust. But, with the situation as it is, he commits every strength he has to the obligations he has made for himself, to fulfill those obligations honestly and correctly.
We come to understand him, because—unlike other men caught in their own, duller existential crises—he is permitted to talk through the situation with himself, as well as his conversational partners. We know that he is driven by a distant pain. But he remains directed by a moral compass. He is a man dedicated to doing the right thing, to living the virtues we hope we all possess. He is, indeed, doing the right thing, as far as I can tell, and as far as his situation can allow. In the end, Ivan Locke is perhaps the single best role model I've ever seen in a feature film. He is an ordinary man, but a good man. Perhaps he is the best any human could be, in the desolation of his here and now.
The voices on the other end of his telephone shall not be discounted. Ruth Wilson, in particular, is invaluable as Ivan's betrayed wife—even if her failure to understand the relative importance of human foibles in the face of megaengineering projects does sadly mark her as a weak female character. Andrew Scott finds exactly the right pitch to play his put-upon underling, struggling his way out of the untenable professional position he's been placed in by his boss' failure. Tom Holland, as Ivan's son, finds a way to deliver a symbol-heavy monologue in a way that never seems unnatural, nor less than heartbreaking, though of course our ability to watch Hardy's face helps him immeasurably. Olivia Colman is certainly proficient as well, as the prospective other woman, whose complicated, torturous delivery, along with what may be preexisting emotional dysfunction, has presently driven her to the point of pitiful delusion. (However, there is—and I counted—a single acting failure, and it unfortunately belongs to Colman, as a result of her not terribly-believable pregnancy moaning.)
The gimmick of this film is that Locke is, literally, a man driving in his car to London, taking place very nearly in real time. It could have been visually deadening, but Locke realizes what cinematographers great and small have known forever—that a car on the road at night is darkness and color and reflections and an opportunity for focal tricks beyond all reason. Haris Zambarlokous has said that he shot Ivan's BMW as if it were a spaceship; its voyage is a more evocative light show than most space opera. In sodium-drenched isolation, Ivan Locke feels just like what he says he is—and though it is in another context, the signal is not subtle. He seems to be the last man on Earth.
Haris Zambarlokous: he also shot Thor. (And is he perfectly put together by Justine Wright's brilliant editing, and ably assisted by Dickon Hichliffe's most Mansellesque music? Yes, he is.)
But there is more than just the car and the beauty of the streelights, blurred like when you drive through tears. There is the road, too; and the traffic. The traffic is okay is an endlessly repeated refrain, so heavily brought to bear that I fear it must be some kind of meaningful motif. The last shots of Locke are not of Ivan, but of the lights winding through the darkness outside London. We realize that, despite his solitude, these roads have never been lonely.
The flow of human endeavor has been the permanent background to Ivan Locke's own journey. He is one among many. He is a life—a miracle, amongst miracles. Life itself may, in truth, rarely be very miraculous at all. But it's a wonderful and valuable thing to have it affirmed anyway, to be convinced, if only for a few moments, that it means something after all, even—especially—if the only meaning Locke can offer, like Gravity before it, is hope.
And you know what? If you're not into all that, you can pretend it's a prequel to Fury Road.