Sometimes a self-imposed narrative limitation can enliven and enhance a film, exploding an otherwise simple plot into an immersive experience akin to virtual reality. Think of films like Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, whose camera leaves the jury room only for short bookends around the bulk of story, or Hitchcock’s Rope which not only limits itself spatially to a single apartment set but also technologically to long continuous shots, edited together to make the film appear continuous. Many film historians argue that the famous Hays Code, which censored Hollywood films for four decades, forced screenwriters to develop more innovative scripts as well—instigating witty double entendres like Bacall’s famous “You know how to whistle, don't you? You just put your lips together and... blow.” But for every film made better by such contrivances, there are dozens made worse by them. Locke falls into the latter category, closer to Phone Booth than 12 Angry Men.
Director: Steven Knight
Producers: Guy Heeley, Paul Webster
Writer: Steven Knight
Cinematographer: Haris Zambarloukos
Music: Dickon Hinchliffe
Editor: Justine Wright
Cast: Tom Hardy, Olivia Colman (voice), Ruth Wilson (voice), Andrew Scott (voice) Ben Daniels (voice)
Premiere: September 2, 2013 – Venice Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: April 25, 2014
US Distributor: A24
In Locke, the conceit is spatial. Our protagonist Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) spends the whole film in his BMW SUV, calling various people on his Bluetooth phone and unraveling a story in media res through these conversations. He calls his wife and kids, his boss (labeled “Bastard” on his phone’s caller ID), an employee, and a woman giving birth. The central drama, as becomes clear about five minutes into the film, is that this woman, Bethan, is giving birth to Ivan’s child, the result of a one night stand—Ivan’s only dalliance from an otherwise happy marriage. Out of some moral obligation—tacked up to the after-effects of his own father’s absence at his own birth—Locke needs to be there for the birth of the child, and on the way he needs to call his wife and confess to everything. At the same time, Ivan—a construction engineer—needs to orchestrate “the biggest cement pour in European history,” for a building project that his conscience is forcing to leave in inexperienced hands. Tom Hardy does well in portraying this emotional ambivalence, cooing too his wife to try to earn her forgiveness, simmering with anger as he talks to the “Bastard” and evincing some confused emotions as he calms the mother of his child as she panics in her hospital bed. (To her question of “Do you love me?” he responds, “This is a question you’re asking probably because of the pain. How could I love you?”)
The failure of this film is certainly not Hardy’s, he shows once again an incredible talent for internal rage ready to boil over, disguised by his Welsh accent and formal affect. He is a human powderkeg, and shows that no one else could have been better for this role. The film was certainly pitched to him as an opportunity for his “tour de force” one-man show. Unfortunately, the bland script and constraining setting (the dreariness of highways outside London never abates in the film’s 85 minutes) takes all the teeth out of his bite. The script’s central metaphor seems to be concerned with how little things can cause big effects—heavy-handedly tied to Ivan by his dialogue about how the wrong cement can create cracks until “the world comes crashing down around you.” Probably the weakest moments in the film are Ivan’s conversations with his father, now dead, who he imagines in the back seat. These shots won’t even go so far as to give us a glimpse into his illusory memory, showing only an empty headrest reflected in a rearview mirror. This lack of visual imagination is in evidence everywhere through the film.
The main problem is that Locke’s entire conceit, that this story should be told inside of a moving car, is not filmic but theatrical. One could imagine this being a compelling play, with no need for an elaborate set, just a car and a phone. But assigning such a conceit to a film is to negate all that is filmic. This is a medium that can move, transform, and create meaning between cuts. The camera can transport us instantly halfway across the world or take us inside someone’s mind. But Locke’s camera does none of that. By constantly living in Ivan’s car, the film feels located somewhere between a play and a BMW ad. In its own way, Locke could be a strong character piece, but to stomach it requires sitting through an hour and a half of such bland tedium. It’s a shame, but not all that surprising. Director Steven Knight has a few good scripts in his catalogue, most notably for David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises, but he is also a co-creator of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, a show whose own self-imposed aesthetic limitations make it one of the least visually interesting in television history.