"Locke" is a solo act, and Tom Hardy is its superbly talented soloist. Throughout writer-director Steven Knight's nocturnal drama, the actor, deploying a Welsh accent, keeps his voice in a calm, determined register, suggesting a born manager and innate control freak whose life has spun atypically out of control.
This man knows the best way to talk someone off a ledge does not involve matching or exceeding their emotions.
Hardy, Mr. Intensity always, tamps down the character's inner demons so that when he does explode, here and there, now and then, it's startling.
Knight wrote two exceptional modern thrillers, "Dirty Pretty Things" and "Eastern Promises." With "Locke," set almost entirely inside a sedan as its driver speeds down the M6 expressway from Birmingham to London, the writer-director manages a peculiar but effective novelty located at the crossroads of a radio play, a one-man stage presentation, a one-man auto show and a movie with just enough movie in it to justify the form.
Fate has conspired against Ivan Locke. He's a successful construction manager whose largest-ever building project is about to begin with the pouring of tons of cement into freshly dug foundations. Months earlier Locke, married with two boys, had a bantamweight sexual encounter with a woman. Now that woman is about to give birth in a London hospital.
Abandoning the construction site at a dangerous moment, he drives the 90 or so minutes south, all the while working his hands-free phone and negotiating fraught communications with his wife; his boys; his one-night stand; his boss; a hard-drinking work colleague, in a panic; and, as Locke glances periodically in the rear-view mirror, with the memory of his own father, who abandoned Locke decades earlier.
"I have behaved not at all like myself," Locke admits to his seething wife. With an occasionally heavy hand Knight writes about a man trying to control an uncontrollable situation of his own making. Hardy's character approaches his crises like a series of construction jobs; he's always pleading with the unseen voices on the other end of the line to behave in a "practical," "normal" fashion so that disaster does not befall them all.
When Locke describes concrete as being "as delicate as blood," you wish Knight's writing contract had allowed for one fewer simile.
But as director, shooting digitally in collaboration with cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, he varies his attack shrewdly as Hardy is captured head-on, or in the side-view mirror, or from the empty passenger seat. Once you realize the unseen voices will be contributing a lot to this man's story, you appreciate what Ruth Wilson, Olivia Colman, Andrew Scott, Tom Holland and Bill Milner bring in terms of apt vocal characterizations.
Twenty minutes in, Hardy notwithstanding, you might be tempted to bail on "Locke." Don't.
'Locke' - 3 stars
MPAA rating: R (for language throughout)
Running time: 1:25
Opens: FridayCopyright © 2015, RedEye