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Screenwriter Steven Knight likes to see what happens when ordinary people in England find themselves in extraordinary situations. In Dirty Pretty Things, immigrant workers in a London hotel discover a sinister criminal underworld, only to use it for their own gain. Eastern Promises is all about a young nurse who finds herself in the middle of a feud between Russian mobsters. Now there’s Locke, which Knight also directed, and he adds formal daring to the story of an everyman who experiences unenviable stress. Locke takes place entirely inside a car, with a hero taking phone calls from his co-workers and family. It’s a bold experiment, and does not have the payoff of the usual thriller.

Tom Hardy stars as Ivan Locke, a smooth-tongued Welshman who thinks he can talk his way through one of the worst evenings of his life. Seven months ago Ivan had a onetime affair with Bethan (Olivia Colman), who is prematurely going into labor with his child. Ivan feels obligated to abandon his job for the London hospital where’s admitted, and this gets him in big trouble with his colleagues. Ivan’s supervising a large construction project, one that involves a delicate concrete pour the following morning, and he does not want to explain why he left at the last moment. Instead, he delegates his duties to his underling Donal (Andrew Scott), providing complicated instructions over the phone. The worst phone call is between Ivan and his wife Katrina (Ruth Wilson): he tells her about the affair, and she’s despondent. Their sons do not suspect anything initially, although the older one starts to suspect that Ivan won’t be coming home.

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This may sound like a lot of plot, but Knight’s shrewd screenplay lays out all the important players quickly. He’s more interested in the aftermath of Ivan’s choices, and how they may create opportunities for suspense. It’s no accident Ivan shares a last name with John Locke, the British philosopher who (among other things) argued that man has an innate capacity for logic. Ivan starts his drive with the steadfast belief that his sense of reason can control his professional/personal life, only to see both devolve into chaos.

Hardy’s performance is a perfect mix of confidence and denial: he speaks with a gentle singsong tone, as if his voice is a lullaby of trust, and it sounds harried after all his planning goes to hell. Denial shifts toward an uneasy combination of desperation and acceptance, and Hardy sells this complex feeling through specific nonverbal cues. There is one flourish that is downright silly – Ivan imagines his deadbeat dad is in the backseat, and verbally abuses him – but Knight’s script finds tension in the limits of phone conversation. There are moments where he wishes he could do more than just talk, and so he rages as his luxury car careens down the highway.

Locke is not the first one-man movie – Robert Altman’s Secret Honor and Oliver Stone’s Talk Radio also limit their characters – but it’s noteworthy because the conceit of a long drive give Knight an opportunity to create evocative light and shadow. It’s raining for part of Ivan’s drive, and his camera distorts the light and glass to create a potent metaphor for the tension: there is simple order within the confines of the car, and the distortions of the outside world are a reminder of Ivan’s personal/professional crisis. Knight shot Locke in an unusual way: he put Hardy’s car on a flatbed truck, while all the other actors would phone him from a hotel conference room in real time. They repeated the “run” several times, which means that Hardy and the others can use early scenes to inform later choices. This an ingenious filmmaking technique, and not just because it’s economical. Locke requires several small escalations of tone and mood, and chronological order is the best way to achieve them.

Through Knight’s direction and Hardy’s performance, Locke is more than a mere novelty. It uses the limitations of Ivan’s situations as an opportunity for character development, although the men/women who call him cannot reach the same nuance by design. By abandoning traditional storytelling, it is necessary that Locke does not end with a traditional payoff. Knight correctly understands that there is no easy reconciliation for a film that unfolds in real time (more or less). Little is resolved, except for Ivan’s newfound wisdom that he cannot control everything. Ivan goes for a harrowing ride in Locke, and it’s worth joining him precisely because most films cannot capture the universal mix of folly and decency.

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