The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. It’s a maxim Ivan Locke would normally abide by. As the overseer of the largest civilian concrete pour in Europe, he isn’t afraid to come down hard on his suppliers the night before the job to demand only the best grade of concrete, heatedly going into detail why anything less than perfect would spell disaster for the 55-story skyscraper he’s contracted to build. Only Locke isn’t telling that to his suppliers. He’s explaining it to a panicked subordinate as he drives away on the eve of the biggest job of his career, heading in the opposite direction of every one of his priorities in Steven Knight’s Locke. Tom Hardy stars as the titular construction supervisor cooped up in his car for the entirety of its run time, making call after call to explain his absence to his family and colleagues.
Locke’s reason for absconding doesn’t stay a secret for too long. In fact, he’s self-destructively obsessed with total transparency, which is why it’s not so much of a spoiler to say that he abandons his family and job to be present at the birth of his child from a one night stand. Premature labor is the reason for the bad timing, which Knight uses it to his advantage to condense Locke’s tragedy to a single drive down England’s M6 motorway. The single location setup could’ve been reduced to an exercise in almost anything – Hardy’s vanity, Knight’s writing, innovation in editing or cinematography – but each aspect is so restrained that it’s impossible to break the entirety down into pieces. Instead, we get a remarkably sympathetic chamber play that never strays far from its investigation into one anonymous motorist’s conscience as his world collapses around him.
Hardy comfortably eases into an every-man character who’s fed up with his own guilt, and who naively acts like it’s its own punishment, repeatedly asking his wife (Ruth Wilson) to discuss the next “practical step,” something that obviously won’t happen, no matter how adult he thinks he’s acting. Thankfully, the growing anguish of the family calls is counterbalanced by the increasing levity of his work calls. Andrew Scott, as the voice of Locke’s petrified, up-jumped subordinate Donal, is a joy, bringing an unexpected theatricality over the phone, bristling under Locke’s commands and hitting the hard cider as things go from bad to worse. The road bumps the two encounter give Locke something to focus on, and Hardy falls easily into the sort of preoccupied camaraderie that could distract him from his most personal problems. Scott is the brightest spot in a great voice cast that never lets Hardy down.
The deepest conflict rears its head when Locke is off the phone, and Knight makes it even harder to read his motives. Eyeing the rear view mirror after every bad call, Locke castigates his own father for abandoning him. Laudable as Locke’s decision is, it becomes difficult to fully support when it’s clear he’s not in his right mind. Locke’s son’s increasingly distressed calls further reinforce the argument that he could’ve found a better way to resolve the situation he’s in, but his grudge against his own father is too strong to let anything detract him from carrying out this noble, yet largely symbolic, act. He insists he’s trying to be true to himself and do the right thing, but no one he speaks with recognizes him anymore. Even his boss asks him why he couldn’t just deceive everyone by saying he was sick. It feeds into our reading of Locke’s words too, making us wonder just how honest he’s being in the first place about his isolated act of infidelity.
By and large Hardy plays the role sympathetically, thanks mostly to his unquestionable dedication to his work, and Knight adds another final touch to give his downfall a pang of unfairness. Locke is missing an important football match at the time, and Locke’s son (Tom Hollander) rhapsodizes about a player who scores a shocking goal by doing something completely uncharacteristic of himself, winning the praise of a nation while Locke condemns himself with his own good turn. It cuts to the core of a psychologically complex movie that asks if its hero is really acting for the right reasons. It ends on an ellipses. Any further and it would ruin its effect, capturing the brief moment went one man’s stolidity faces down the world racing by. Smeared by the impressionistic blur of the city lights going past, Locke does an excellent job of showing the insignificance of one man when he is most struggling to prove his worth.