Steven Knight's Locke appears as if it deliberately accepted the challenge to craft an intriguing film from a concept that sounds as unexciting on paper as watching paint dry, or, more accurately when it comes to Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy), as watching cement harden. Taking place entirely within the space of his family-friendly BMW with nothing but domestic and professional drama flooding his speakerphone -- in the dead of night, mind you -- this is a scenario that seems destined to be devoid of conflict or suspense, let alone traditional cinematic presence. Surprisingly, what takes shape during Ivan's voyage down the highway is an unexpectedly absorbing glimpse at regret, responsibility, and diverting from the mistakes made by one's parents, navigated by a cracking performance from Tom Hardy and a casually experimental visual style. Despite the scenario's trite setup, Locke's a competent depiction of what happens when an psychologically worn-out driver has nothing but loud concerned voices and his strained thoughts filling the space during his drive towards inevitability.
On the evening before he's supposed to supervise the pouring of concrete for an immense skyscraper, successful construction engineer Ivan Locke decides to make a right turn instead of left on the way home after receiving a phone call. It's unclear where he's headed at first, only that the situation's critical enough to tear him away from the responsibilities of the high-profile, high-cost construction site, a move that's almost certain to lead to his termination. The film gradually introduces the repercussions of his decision, the responsibility he's dumping on his assistant and the demands of a corporation to remove him, amid his resolute conversations through his car's mobile phone, while also painting a picture of his family who'll also be affected by the unfolding events. It's only later that the story gradually reveals the urgency behind his destination in London, the birth of his illegitimate child, reflecting on his mistakes and how he could've prevented all this from happening in the first place.
There's a significant hurdle of frustration Locke has to cross, though, involving the circumstances of Ivan's situation that night, built around this project that could make or break his livelihood getting torpedoed by a personal crisis requiring his immediate attention. The fact that it wouldn't have been such a catastrophic issue had this bombshell gone off some days before or after the concrete pour speaks volumes to the contrived nature of Knight's screenplay, let alone had Ivan been the diligent, straight-shooting construction manager he's purported to be. Alas, the film's deeper musings and suspenseful energy also wouldn't exist without Ivan's abandonment on that precise night: the tension in trying to encourage his stand-in, Donal; quickly phoning in confirmations to workers and city officials; and informing his wife, Katrina (Ruth Wilson), of why he's driving to London instead of coming home to watch a big sports match. Bad things tend to happen at the worst times, sure, but "when it rains, it pours" gets pushed pretty far here.
After embracing the forced conceits in how Ivan's world starts to unravel, Locke settles into the driver's seat as a spare, focused study of the man's plummeting mental state, offering an evolving glimpse at his reactions to earth-shifting developments never seen on-screen. The constantly-moving bokeh lights that accompany a nighttime drive down the highway take on a uniquely symbolic visual motif, mirroring Ivan's distraught blur by framing his tired eyes and on-edge, sick facial expressions with the hazy reflections of time and distance passing by. There's something profoundly relatable about the solitude of Ivan's acceleration towards this location that's only going to bring him grief and undesired change, speaking directly to how we attempt to mentally adjust to abrupt events. In Locke, writer/director Knight exposes the decline of a man during this ride who's desperately tried to avoid the blunders made by his father, then must deal with the repercussions -- and the regret -- when he's failed to do so.
Tom Hardy's performance naturally becomes the film's lifeblood, where the authenticity of Ivan's deceptively prepared tempo crumbling before our eyes transforms into an engaging psychological experience. His peculiarly calm temperament and rhythmic rumble of a voice starts out very self-composed and prepared for the events to follow, then gradually reveals his internal wear and tear with each disruptive inbound and outbound call. Hardy responds to the figurative bumps in the road -- both of the life he's leaving behind and the problem he's driving toward -- with impeccable resonance and complexity, while observing him turns into a moderate philosophical affair in the process, about whether he's respecting his tier of responsibility or if he's being self-destructive in service of his dignity. Despite whether those watching and scrutinizing Ivan's decision agree with him or not, Hardy's projection of the man's turmoil shrewdly convinces that this would be the bed the character would make for himself, informed by his personal code of responsibility.
In that, Locke's brisk eighty-five minutes discover what can best be described as raw emotional suspense, creating anticipation out of Ivan's dedication to his professional obligations and his family's perception of him ... even as both rapidly unspool amid nothing but phone calls and conversations with himself. In the time spent with the construction manager, writer/director Knight manages to get those watching invested in seeing Ivan try to tie up the loose ends of a concrete pour, of all things, if for no other reason than to see him earn bits of catharsis --- and, perhaps, to see him suffer the consequence of neglect -- while his life irreparably changes. Once the intense car ride ends and Ivan approaches his destination, however, the film admirably resists the urge to tie up its own loose ends, leaving it largely unclear what'll happen to the mess of Ivan's life. That's perhaps the most compelling thing about Knight's one-man character study: that the version of Locke who slumps into the driver's seat of his BMW won't be the same as the one who steps out of it, as he shouldn't be.
Video and Audio:
The visual style for Locke sounds about as intimidating in its banality as the story might on the surface, shot digitally with RED cameras entirely at night and focused on the brash oranges and teals that have come to hallmark Hollywood projects, all built around an eighty-miute drive on the highway. Just think for a minute, however, about the complexity that accompanies those visuals, from the fickle movement of pools of luminescence as they brush on the driver to the blurred, out-of-focus lights that pass by at a distance. Lionsgate's 2.35:1-framed, 1080p Blu-ray deftly navigates the complicated shadows, the beautifully layered reflections, and the brash clarity of the car's GPS and phone systems against the darkness. Faint, respectable details of Ivan's clothing, facial hair and creased eyes peek out as the camera moves in for close-ups amid the darkness, letting the erratic industrial lights lighting his way reveal and swallow up details appropriately. While not a traditionally beautiful high-definition presentation, its rock-solid handling of its distinctive aesthetics is entirely compelling.
Locke's soundtrack is also a sneaky endeavor, presented here in a reputable 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio treatment. With the recordings of Tom Hardy's dialogue in the car's cabin also comes the faint sounds of travel in a largely sound-reducing vehicle -- the rattle of movement, a police car zipping by, the clicking of a turn signal -- which assume a modest, clear presence that sounds entirely authentic within the mundane setting. Music only really appears during transitions between sequences, so it doesn't really clash against any of the film's sound effects, but the scoring exhibits most of the track's separation (especially at the front) and comes through with the appropriate sonic balance to create a reflection of Locke's shifting temperament. Most important, of course, is the verbal clarity, both from Tom Hardy's velvety dialogue and the distorted rasp of voices over speakerphone, and both sides of the coin respect every ounce of dialogue in the picture, though the phone conversations become a tad distanced in clarity. English and Spanish subtitles are available.
Audio Commentary with Steven Knight:
Aside from one or two faint references to events happening on-screen, writer/director Knight stays completely away from transcribing Locke's plot in his commentary, instead offering a relatively deep, interesting perspective on the challenges, rewards, and anecdotes of creating the film. He focuses on how filming Locke resembled performing a play over and over instead of a traditional shoot, along with his research into construction logistics, Hardy's illness on-screen not being part of the character, and which of the police cars in the film were on purpose and which were happy accidents. There are gaps between his contributions that make it a somewhat broken-up listening experience, but they usually flow together well enough with the music that separates the sequences. Very solid track.
Also available is the Ordinary Unraveling: Making Locke (9:37, 16x9 HD), which covers a lot of the same ground as Knight's commentary alongside visual references: behind-the-scenes shots of the BMW and the recording studio. Director Steven Knight, actor Tom Hardy, director of photography Haris Zambarloukos and other crew members offer some insights through interviews, culminating in a pretty standard, brief, but illuminating press-kit featurette. An Ultraviolet Digital HD download slip has also been included.
With Locke, Steven Knight endeavors to take the minimalist one-person, one-setting concept in a distinctive direction, stripping down the character and the stakes to a very personal dramatic level. Ivan Locke's no hero, nor a victim: he's an everyday construction engineer who's stepping up to take the blow of a mistake he's made, one that'll likely cost him his job and his family. At the driver's seat of his SUV while talking on the phone, Ivan endures the mental strain and logical issues of making sure a construction project will be underway the next day without his supervision, while enduring the emotional impact of his life falling apart as he deliberately leaves one dire situation for another. The circumstances leading to this evening's implosion are a bit too artificial to take in earnest, but Tom Hardy's performance and the themes touched on by Ivan Locke's self-created dilemma justify that rigidity. Lionsgate's Blu-ray projects the audiovisual intents of Knight's film with incredible aplomb, and sports a fine commentary and making-of featurette. Strongly Recommended.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site