If Locke is a trick, it’s one with expert sleight of hand. It takes place (almost) entirely within the tight confines of a BMW, featuring a man in crisis with only a cell phone to fix it. The small space does nothing to hold Locke back; it's riveting. There’s a library of films that study how to make stories out of cramped spaces and isolated rooms, exemplified by such authors as Alfred Hitchcock with Rope and Lifeboat, Akira Kurosawa with High and Low, and Sidney Lumet with 12 Angry Men and Dog Day Afternoon. There are benefits to the single-space experience: it isn’t hard to make a film feel claustrophobic when the setting is doing that for you on its own. When you bottle an audience into an enclosed location, eventually the bottle is gunna pop. It’s the filmmaker’s job to make a visual story out of a set space, something Kurosawa mastered in High and Low with elaborate long-take sequences that feature many different compositions without ever cutting. That technique ties the emotional arc of the characters to the visual, which also staves off the greatest risk with films in this quirky sub-genre: boredom. Without expert direction and a fine cast, the single-space film can easily feel like the doctor’s waiting room of cinema. But writer and director Steven Knight knows movies. Locke is ceaselessly compelling and never less than fascinating.
Opening in a construction site in what are the film’s only minutes outside of a car, Locke is a film that happens nearly in real time. Orson Welles, who was keenly interested in temporal and physical reality in his masterstroke Citizen Kane, would applaud Knight for executing such a tightly wound story in an equally tight space. The main character is Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy), a Welsh-accented top-tier construction man leaving for home after a late night at work. We learn he stayed in preparation for tomorrow’s big concrete pour, the details of which become increasingly revealed as the film continues. We see him go through a set of actions we infer to be routine. He methodically takes off his grimy work clothes before getting into his luxury car, he pulls out, and he drives. As he approaches an intersection—one he has surely faced many nights driving home from work—he switches on his left turn signal without giving it a thought, an unconscious act of muscle memory the way any of us driving home would do. But something changes. The second he flips on the turn signal, it’s as though somebody lit a match inside him, and it only takes seconds before becoming a roaring fire. He realizes he has to change direction. He puts on his right turn signal and takes off in the other direction, setting forward a chain reaction that might cost him everything he has in life. Why? He’s trying to do the right thing. And here’s the rub: the only way he can save himself and those around him is through his cell phone.
I won’t say how or what. Locke doesn’t have the exposition of a normal film, and instead of going through the typical plot checkmarks in the first act, the film revels in revealing its secrets. In a conventional film, these would be simple truths of its premise, but Locke turns each of them into small revelations. These secrets are periodically given to the audience, and I won’t rob the film, or my readers who haven’t seen it, of how it is meant to be experienced. It’s for this reason that the trailers exempt any plot details beyond the summary above. Locke is all about the becoming complicit in its multilayered construction (no pun intended). It’s lean, fast, and shamelessly manipulative.
The design is both a study in cinema and in stylistics. Locke shares as much with Samuel Beckett’s minimalist theater as it does Hitchcock. Instead of relying on the complex in-shot changing compositions of Kurosawa, Knight uses light and the line as abstract shapes pushing Tom Hardy’s dazzling performance into intense focus. Knight doesn’t pretend there are a hundred interesting angles to shoot a car, so he abstracts headlights into beautiful shifting orbs that frame our conflicted hero. It’s a successful effect, and has a way of making the surroundings an expressionist stage for Locke’s state of mind. Unlike Enemy, which I reviewed last week, everything in Locke serves the character and the audience’s investment in him.
Some may reject the film, since the foundation of the plot is built on elaborate, deliberate contrivances. You either buy it or you don't. There are two umbrella narratives, each with interconnected moving parts. They are distinguished easily: work and family. It quickly becomes clear that both dramatic arcs are symbols of the other and mirror one another in increasingly labored ways. The allegorical relationship between Locke’s personal crisis and work ordeal becomes so blatant you may want to go “Come on”; but to call it heavy-handed is to miss the point. This too is a device of minimalist theater. The figure, Ivan Locke, is reduced to the emotions that make him a human being: love, family, betrayal, legacy, responsibility. What he feels and how he behaves is a brutally exposed look at his identity. It’s for this reason the in-your-face symbols don’t get in the way of the story, because they are the story. The story is Ivan Locke, the man. The narrative spun around him is a representation of his soul (the philosophical definition, not the theistic). He even falls into soliloquy, yet another device of theater, shouting curses at an invisible projection of his dead father, personified in the back seat.
It’s a marvel to see Tom Hardy walk us through each evolution of Ivan Locke’s emotional journey, and it very well could be his best performance. He commands the screen and gives us a palpable sense of who Ivan Locke is even before the dialogue has revealed it to us. He’s convincing in every conversation, especially those to himself that risk coming off as silly. His performance is the greatest spectacle of the year so far. Instead of selling one emotion at a time, Hardy brings together distinct textures of emotion with startling honesty. The stakes are always felt, if for no other reason than how Hardy makes them real. The premise is necessarily voyeuristic, and Locke’s struggle feels so palpable it becomes uncomfortable to watch, like you walked into the wrong room at a funeral parlor and couldn’t leave for an hour and a half. I felt like watching him break down was an unwarranted intrusion and I should look away from the screen to give him a moment to compose himself. That’s the level of acting on display. It’s just that good. It’s reported if the film makes enough we can expect a major campaign for Hardy for best actor come Oscar time, and it’s hard to see many performances this year measuring up. It has to be said the supporting voice cast, the different people he talks to on the phone, are all strong.
Locke was an experiment, and one that’s hard to evaluate. It’s different, brazenly so, and condemns conventional methods of judgment as freely as it condemns conventional moviemaking. Mistakenly labeled as a simple character study by some, Locke is a painstaking study in aesthetics as much as anything else, and seems to have too much on its mind at almost every moment. If a story has a brain and a heart, then Locke’s are never quite in sync, making the film feel splintered. It’s never truly cinematic, but equally never feels like theater. It’s defies categorization, and I love it for that.
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