Ivan Locke gets in his BMW X5 one evening in Birmingham and he sets off on a journey to London. Over the course of the 90 minutes he expects to be in his car, he knows he has to make some phone calls and these phone calls will change his life forever. Locke knows this, he is prepared for it, and in this new film from Steven Knight the events unfold very nearly in real time in the confines of only Locke’s car, with only actor Tom Hardy on screen for the full 90 minutes, making it one of the most compelling, engrossing and, crucially, realistic experiences I have seen for quite some time.
In reviewing Locke it helps to clarify what it is not, should the film’s promotional materials set incorrect expectations. It is not ‘Phone Booth in a car’ nor is it a race-against-time thriller where every second counts; Ivan Locke is not a reluctant hero, nor does he turn into an expert high-speed racer in the final act. He is just a man like anyone else and like anyone else he makes mistakes. But what drives this film is Locke’s personal mission to do what he believes is the right thing.
Watching the film I asked myself if I would have done the same thing in Locke’s unenviable position, and I really don’t know the answer. What I do know is the screenplay is a masterclass in how to create, build, and sustain an engrossing scenario for the audience without ever sacrificing believability or asking us to ‘just go with it’. Every plot development is organic, stemming from Locke’s decision to make this journey; through the course of the journey and many phone calls the lives of several people are changed forever and only Locke is to blame. Part of what makes the film so compelling is how Locke never shifts the blame nor asks for forgiveness: he accepts his fate from the moment he gets in the car. I don’t recall a character who is given so few likable qualities in a film yet is neither a ‘bad guy’ nor sympathetic; he is just Ivan Locke and this is the decision he has taken based on the actions he has made.
Despite the unique premise, the film would be nothing if it were not for both a powerhouse, tour de force performance by Tom Hardy and the ability of director Steven Knight to keep his film consistently visually interesting. You wouldn’t imagine this could make for both a compelling and visually striking experience but Knight has made a film which delivers in both areas; the lights on the motorway take on a hypnotic effect, blending into one another and floating across the windscreen and Hardy’s face like his only companion on this lonely journey. And the display of the car’s hands-free phone system soon creates it own tension once familiar names pop up. My favorite scene is when Locke first speaks to his wife and how Knight places Hardy’s face to the far left of the screen leaving three-quarters of the screen in darkness, forcing his character into a literal and proverbial corner and making him look, for that moment, detached from everything else in the world.
I love films which give me a new experience, introduce me to a different kind of leading character with a strange moral code, and take me on a journey which I don’t know how will end (or even how I want it to end). Locke is minimalist, art house cinema at its best and it’s exactly what I look forward to from today’s exciting new film makers.