Genre: Drama, Thriller
Directed by: Steven Knight
Starring: Tom Hardy, Olivia Coleman, Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott
There’s something very refreshing about Steven Knight’s approach to filmmaking. His directorial debut, last year’s Hummingbird, was certainly no masterpiece. In fact it wasn’t even good, but Knight’s ambition was admirable; how many other directors would try to inject social realism into a Jason Statham thriller? With his second film, Knight has gone in another, equally experimental direction. No shooting or explosions here, the biggest eruption is when Tom Hardy briefly unloads his growing frustration out on a car steering wheel. If Knight’s first film suffered from being too congested, his second succeeds by being entirely minimalist.
Hardy plays the eponymous Ivan Locke, a construction foreman who starts a lengthy commute between Birmingham and London with a decent job and a loving wife. However, as Locke drives closer and closer to a reality he cannot escape, a series of phone calls threaten to destroy everything he holds dear.
Knight wastes no time setting the scene. He immediately pans across a baron construction site and to the door of Locke’s car, which will serve as both his prison and haven, with the establishing shot. Basing his story within the confines of something as mundane as a nighttime commute is one of writer/director’s many masterstrokes. Our ability to so easily recognize the situation firmly grounds Locke’s story in reality; even before we know the details of his plight, we feel like we can identify with him.
Even for an actor as confident and prolific as Hardy, there’s extraordinary depth to his performance here. Since his breakthrough role in Bronson, Hardy’s method has continually succeeded in drawing understanding, and even sympathy, from antagonistic characters. Ivan may not be a nasty person, but he’s also no saint. Knight does little to glamorise his central character. Locke’s clothes are disheveled, his eyes are red with exhaustion, his nose is continually running, and his determination to be true and do the right thing makes him frustratingly over-particular.
The more we are drawn in to his story though, the more we empathise with Locke. As it quickly transpires, the reason for Ivan’s late night drive is a shameful indiscretion that will almost certainly ruin his marriage. He knows it’s bad and, more importantly, so do we. Yet his resolve to be true to himself and do the right thing is undeniably valiant, meaning that when Ivan’s life does begin to inevitably crash down around him, we feel and share his pain.
Hardy delivers a masterfully unassuming performance that may well go down as a career best. The intimately placed camera, forever focused on Ivan’s face from various angles, tells the real story here. Hardy exudes Locke’s growing pain subtly, using his body language and vocal tones to poignantly paint the portrait of a man being pushed close to the edge.
Ivan’s desperation and determination are what drive Knight’s tale. The pain of those directly affected by Locke’s mistakes is expressed, quite simply, through moments of silence on the other end of the phone. It’s certainly upsetting at times, but Knight never tries to squeeze more emotion than is necessary from his story; his low-key score rarely called upon to accentuate the mood.
The intensity of Hardy’s performance paves the way for a gnawing tension that rarely lets up. As Locke’s journey grows more complicated, so does the immediacy of his situation. Even the vehicle itself adds to Ivan’s anxiety, robotically informing him that he has other calls that need to be answered and addressed while he’s still on the last one.
Only when Locke begins to engage in bitter one-way arguments with his deceased father does the relentless pace begin to slow. So naturalistic is the rest of Knight’s film that these more melodramatic moments, in which Locke notes how disappointing his father was, feel unbalanced. It’s as if the director feels the need to reinforce what we already know, that Locke needs more justification for what he’s doing.
Yet even this little niggle cannot detract from how supremely entertaining Locke is. Knight’s well-rounded script is peppered with little nuggets of humour that shine like fog lights through the darkness. Much of this is drawn from the relationship Locke has with his colleague Donal, hilariously voiced by Andrew Scott. It’s hard to bring to mind any other script that manages to make discussions on the pouring of concrete both immersive and amusing, but Knight manages to accomplish it almost effortlessly.
For most directors, the second film is generally considered to be the more difficult. However, having aimed too high with his debut, Knight’s restraint allows Locke to succeed where Hummingbird failed. Drawing so much from a story so simple is worthy of the highest praise, but to literally manage it all from the driver’s seat is a true accomplishment.