I see these complaints about the state of cinema today, people mewling about the prevalence of blockbusters and how all the screens and money are going to these sorts of movies, movies that are full of product placement and explosions and pointless plot twists and actors who are showing up to take that franchise paycheck. I get that complaint, and I’ve felt it myself in the past, especially in the summer when it seems like every single movie is stupider than the last one, and like nobody ever even bothers trying to make something with smarts or wit or energy derived from anything outside of a computer generated graphic.
But then I see a movie like Locke and I wonder what it is that we’re all complaining about, because any cinema landscape that can support a movie like this, that can allow this film to be made with a reasonable star in the lead and be released into theaters across the country and show up on home video, can’t be a bad landscape. This is actually a really healthy landscape, and maybe we’re all so distracted by the huge trees and the shade thrown by their canopy that we miss the lovely flowers that grow lustily in the patches of sunlight that exist. Locke is one of those flowers.
Locke is basically Tom Hardy driving a car for 85 minutes, talking on the phone throughout. The trailers - and title - made me think this was perhaps a thriller, that Hardy’s character was a criminal or a spy dealing with the fallout of a job gone wrong or a mission gone sour as he raced down the motorway towards a violent conclusion. But that isn’t even remotely what writer/director Steven Knight - writer of Eastern Promises - is doing. Hardy’s Locke is a construction foreman who is abandoning his big project the night before the biggest concrete pour in European history to travel to London because a woman he slept with once is having his baby. Also behind him: his wife and children. Locke isn’t a thriller, but it derives its tension from the question of why a man would make a decision like this, why he would throw away his job and his life to be present as a woman he barely knows gives birth.
Hardy is sensational in the lead role, bringing a Bane-like precision to his Welsh enunciation. At first it’s silly, but as you get to understand this man, to see how the precision in his life (he’s always looking for ‘practical next steps’) helps him smooth over the dark patches in his soul. Some of this stuff plays out in an eye-rolling way - he has monologues he delivers to his father’s ghost - but there’s a sense of more that lurks just under the surface. The entire film is just Hardy and disembodied voices coming out of his speaker phone, and you never tire of watching him.
Knight’s direction is able, especially considering he has limited his entire world to one car driving down a non-descript, dark highway. There isn’t much to show except abstract lights and Hardy’s face, but that’s enough. The script is theatrical, filled with long speeches and flowery language that is a delight to hear. Locke is given to measured, elevated language that contrasts him with some of the others to whom he speaks, including an Irish cement layer who takes over the job and is in way over his head. Hardy relishes saying the words as much as relish hearing them.
This is an adult movie in that it has the concerns of grown-ups at its core, specifically what it means to be a man - but not in a brawny sense. Locke is struggling with doing right by his many responsibilities, and with figuring out how his responsibility to himself . Is Locke making the right choice? I’m not quite certain I agree with what he’s doing, but I appreciate that Knight gives the character the dignity of his choice and follows it through. I like that Locke had me wrestling with the same moral dilemmas as the title character, dilemmas that are graspable, not what-if scenarios about life and death, but what-if scenarios about honor and happiness.