The seductively gripping cinematic stunt that calls itself “Locke” bears a slight resemblance to the recent “All Is Lost.” That one was about a man on a boat adrift at sea. In “Locke,” it’s a man in a car; the car’s not falling apart, but his life is.
Unfolding roughly in real time, Steven Knight’s movie begins with its protagonist, a skyscraper construction foreman named Ivan Locke, getting in his BMW as night falls after a long day and driving 90 minutes to London to deal with a personal crisis. The journey becomes the movie, the drama supplied by his speakerphone interactions with his increasingly distraught wife (Ruth Wilson provides the voice); another woman, the fragile Bethan (Olivia Colman); Ivan’s superior, Gareth (Ben Daniels), apoplectic that Ivan has walked away from “the biggest concrete pour in the history of Europe, barring nuclear and military”; and Ivan’s inexperienced second-in-command Donal (Andrew Scott), equally freaked out that he has to take over at the last minute.
A man in his car talking — could anything be more boring? Yet “Locke” is magnificently taut in its dramatic suspense, generous in the craft with which Knight lets us “see” the other characters and their predicaments, and nearly existential in its portrait of a good man alone in a moving metal box, improvising his way out of disaster.
I’ve saved the best for last: “Locke” has Tom Hardy as Ivan. The changeling British actor has been a brutal “Bronson” (2008) for Nicholas Winding Refn, and he played the identity expert Eames in “Inception” (2010) and the Electrolux-voiced supervillain Bane of “The Dark Knight Rises” (2012), both for Christopher Nolan. For Knight, a screenwriter (“Eastern Promises”) recently turned director, Hardy rises to the gimmick and grounds “Locke” with a performance as watchably charismatic as it is minimalist. You can’t take your eyes off him — which is fortunate since there’s no one else there.
Hardy’s Ivan is a moral man, a dependable sort so trusted by family and co-workers that you can hear their shock come through the speakerphone as they realize he has quietly gone off the deep end. He has a wispy brown beard and speaks with a mellifluous Welsh accent; he could be Anthony Hopkins’s repressed cousin. It appears that Ivan has made only one serious mistake in his life, and this film’s 85 minutes is about the moment of reckoning as he tries to do the right thing while keeping everything else from collapsing: job, marriage, skyscraper, the lot.
How do the film’s three chief players — Knight, Hardy, and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos — stop the audience from dozing at the wheel? There’s a satisfying amount of plot, much of it involving Ivan solving mind-boggling construction snafus on the fly. “Locke” also intercuts skillfully and rhythmically between close-ups of its hero and the visual night music of England’s motorways. Occasionally the patternings of headlights, taillights, road signs, and slipstream metal blur with a surreal beauty. It’s a universe that could so easily slip out of control, and all a man can do is grip the steering wheel tighter.
Among other things, “Locke” is a testament to the endless drama of the human face. As much as Ivan tries to hold it together, everything we need to know — all the tragedy and Kafkaesque comedy of his journey — is acted out on his features. The movie missteps only in a handful of scenes in which the hero rants at the unseen ghost of his father, a drunk and an abandoner who the camera seems to think is situated in the back seat. It’s a stagey bit, a writer’s gambit, and the film could have conveyed the same back story — the louse whose crimes Ivan may repeat precisely because he’s desperate not to — with much less fuss.
This is a minor mistake in a movie that asks and achieves a surprising richness of involvement on our part. In its quiet way, “Locke” says a lot about the communications technology that joins and separates us from our loved ones: The soothing robotic tones of the BMW’s phone system announcing “You have a call waiting” is employed at various times for laughs and as the unrelenting voice of God. The movie’s also deeply smart about how we use our automobiles as literal and metaphorical vehicles of isolation — steel enclosures that get us where we need to be without our feet ever touching ground.
“Locke” could be (and probably will be) used to teach crisis management — “Star Trek” geeks will know what I mean when I say it’s like a real-world application of the Kobayashi Maru test — and in its semi-demented fashion the movie is an ode to pure professionalism, in front of the camera and behind it. Ivan is some kind of hero, but a different one to whoever’s on the line. He’s a flawed husband, a do-right lover, a compassionate boss, a man who will get that concrete poured and his life set no matter what. To us, he’s a figure we may know from our own lives: both hands on the wheel and juggling like crazy, driving all night and hoping to get somewhere.
Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.