Locke is the latest in a recent spate of films which focus on one character, in a confined setting, fighting for survival. But unlike the protagonists of Gravity and All is Lost, Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) isn’t in danger of losing his life, but his way of life. And while those films were in my view weakened by the seeming arbitrariness of their protagonists’ misfortunes, Locke is beset by a disaster of his own making. In the end, it becomes a compelling meditation on responsibility, moral uprightness, and what it means to be a good person and to do the right thing.
One night in Birmingham, construction foreman Ivan Locke gets into his BMW and sets out for London, despite his family expecting him to come home for a soccer game and his bosses expecting him to be present in the morning for the pouring of a massive foundation–the largest non-nuclear, non-military cement pour in European history, we are told. The reason for Locke’s departure soon becomes clear: he has had an extra-marital fling with Bethan (Olivia Colman), and she is on the verge of giving birth to their child. Abandoned by his own father, Locke insists on being present for the child’s birth, not only for the child’s sake but for Bethan’s, who appears to have no family or close friends.
Although his bosses fire him for his absence, Locke insists upon managing the pour remotely with the help of his assistant Donal (Andrew Scott), whom he must talk through every step of the process. Meanwhile, he must break the news to his wife Katrina (Ruth Wilson), who is, not unreasonably, distressed by the revelation. He tries to keep the news from his sons Eddie (Tom Holland) and Sean (Bill Milner), but they realize something is amiss. Between repeated calls to Donal, Katrina, his sons, Bethan and her doctors, his supervisor Gareth (Ben Daniels) and assorted others, he confronts himself and the idea of his father (represented by an empty seat), a man he hated utterly.
I won’t say Locke is a perfect film. Even at 85 minutes (and when the preliminaries and end credits are removed, it’s maybe 75 minutes total), it does feel just the tiniest bit padded. Director-writer Steven Knight and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos do all they can to keep things visually interesting, but some repetitiveness does creep in. It’s not that big of an issue, but it’s worth noting.
But the script and the performances are alike so excellent that the shortcomings can be overlooked. Even though the film is largely a one-man show–Hardy is the only person we see on-screen–in many ways, the script is the real star.
The film provides a fine opportunity to reflect on issues which are increasingly pervading modern discourse: patriarchy and male privilege both are touched upon, whether Knight explicitly intended to do so or not. Locke tries to explain his act of infidelity by saying that the mood (a construction job had just been completed) was festive, that Bethan talked about her loneliness and her age (we’re told she’s in her 40s), that he was lonely (so much like Willy Loman’s feeble attempts to justify his own infidelity to Biff), and he assumes, as so many of us do, that the act of confession redeems him, that admitting his fault absolves him. He repeatedly insists to Katrina that this was the one time he cheated on her–and she ultimately replies that once is enough.
Some might conclude that the film depicts Katrina unsympathetically–that it portrays her as vengeful, petty, and unforgiving. But after the revelation of infidelity has broken, the frustrations which have built up over the years of their marriage begin to come forth–Locke’s personal messiness; his dedication to his work, as opposed to his dedication to his family; and the “big, stupid grin” he had upon his face when he returned from the business trip on which the fling with Bethan occurred. And while it’s never stated outright, Locke’s fixation on his absentee father (he repeatedly says how much he wants to dig the man’s corpse up and force him to see his son’s righteous action) may very well have been another source of tension.
Locke attempts to keep everything under careful control, and his insistence on doing so, vital to his job, becomes exasperating in his personal life. He refuses to tell Bethan that he loves her, insisting he doesn’t know her, and he describes her as lonely, troubled, etc.–perhaps inadvertently reducing her to something than an autonomous adult, but a “damsel in distress” that he is trying to save. And when he tries to control the situation with Katrina, he talks about seeking a “workable future situation”, or some such inanity, revealing further his habit of seeing people as manipulable, or at least more so than they are. When he adopts a paternalistic tone towards Donal, who has indulged in a couple of cans of cider (and who resents Locke’s meddling, but accepts it), he’s at least thinking of the good of the building. When he tries a similar tack with his wife, he only pushes her farther away from him.
It’s the film’s perceptiveness about human nature that really makes it work. Locke at times defines special pleading with actions, damning his father without realizing (at least not until near the end), just how alike they are. I’ve seen such self-justification, resentment, and attempted control (even when such attempts are absurd) many times before. And the supporting characters are no less intelligently written; who hasn’t dealt with someone who stubbornly insists on having a drink, on saying that what they’ve drunk is immaterial, as Donal does? Who hasn’t been in a position, as Katrina is, where they will almost certainly look unsympathetic, even when a little reflection will reveal they’re wholly in the right? Who hasn’t dealt with a person like Bethan, or even been her, regarded as an inconvenience, a burden that must be shouldered, a hysteric that must be placated?
And then, of course, there’s the question of whether or not Locke is doing the right thing. For my part, I’ll argue that while being there for Bethan and the child is absolutely the right thing to do, his failure to explain the situation sooner and prepare for it is a grievous fault. One may not be inclined to pat Locke on the back for doing what he does, since in the end, so much of what has happened is on his head. That he describes the child as “my fault” may not endear him to many either, but it fits in with Locke’s self-centric view of the world, which the events of this night increasingly challenge. Near the end of the film, one of Locke’s sons has a monologue which suggests some of his father’s attitudes have rubbed off on him; will Locke have learned enough from this trying night to set him on the right path, or will history continue to repeat itself?
And is Locke a good person? I’m not sure. He wants to believe that he is, but so do we all. Perhaps it is enough to say that he is a person.
That the film portrays its characters clearly and without judging them is part and parcel of its greatness. Knight’s script is really quite superior, and hopefully the awards groups don’t totally overlook it.
Tom Hardy carries so much of the film on his back, and yet it’s a performance which some might overlook because…it’s not a flashy one. While Hardy goes through a full emotional gamut here, he never goes over-the-top or cries hysterically; it’s a very controlled performance, and as such, a completely believable one. Hardy is Locke, and perhaps that’s the best thing I can say about him. You don’t see him flexing his acting muscles. You just see Ivan Locke. And while I might give a slight edge to Stellan Skarsgard in the Best Actor race thus far, Hardy does a masterful job here.
The rest of the cast is just fine: Colman, Wilson and Scott are the standous, but Holland and Milner are quite affecting in their own right. They’re not just voices on the other end of the line, they’re full players in the story as well.
As noted, Knight does a fine job of direction, and Zambarloukos does some nice things with the passing lights of cars, lightposts, etc., sprucing the film up just enough to keep it from getting too stagnant (though, as I said, there are lapses). The sound mixing and effects put you right in the environment. It’s a superbly done film across the board.
I was lucky enough to see Locke on a big screen, but even on a TV or computer screen, it shouldn’t lose too much of its impact. The writing and acting are what really count here, and those will shine through unaffected. As I’ve hopefully made clear, it gave me a lot to think about; after seeing it with a friend, it provided us with ample fuel for discussion, and that of the film’s themes, rather how it did (or did not) express them well. Such films are rare. Locke comes highly recommended.