This isn’t your home any more

lockeThe parameters of the 80-minute car ride that is Locke pretty much set themselves: once we get in the car, we cannot get out.  Once we are allowed out of the car, the movie ends.  Sort of like – y’know – a long-ass car ride.

The film, which centers on one character and relies entirely upon an excruciatingly-crafted plot, follows Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy doing an upper-class Welsh accent) as he drives from Birmingham to London in order to be with a certain woman while she gives birth.  Simple enough circumstances, but the conflicts pile up as we, the audience, watch Ivan placate countless people and keep the utter destruction of his life at bay via Bluetooth.  The woman giving birth, Bethan (Olivia Colman) is not Ivan’s wife.  He had a one-night stand with her seven months ago while away from his family, who know nothing about it (yet).  Moreover, he’s supposed to be rushing home from work to watch an important football (soccer) match with his wife, Katrina (Ruth Wilson) and kids.  What’s arguably worse: Ivan is a highly revered construction foreman, and is expected to oversee one of the most monumental concrete pours in the history of England the following morning – an event he will not be present for if he’s in London.

For many of us, this doesn’t sound too bad.  A lie here or there and the whole thing blows over.  But of course, Ivan, for reasons that are slowly peeled away during the few-and-far-between scenes when he’s truly alone, has decided to be completely honest with absolutely everyone tonight.  His boss, Gareth (Ben Daniels) – whose name is saved in Ivan’s Bluetooth address book as “Bastard” (really the only atom of humor in the entire film, and a damn refreshing running gag) – throws the fit you’d expect when Ivan gives him the news that he will not be coming in for the most important workday in his career.  Gareth knows that when he lets the true heads of the company (inexplicably located in Chicago) know this, Ivan will be fired, and he makes no secret about it to Ivan, even asking why Ivan didn’t lie and say he was sick, which would have been a valid excuse.  Things go as Gareth promises, and a call a few minutes later reveals that Ivan no longer has a job to return to, even though Gareth mentioned to Chicago that Ivan has served the company loyally for twelve years.  “Eleven years,” Ivan corrects him.  The honesty is painful.

But the bit of honesty that makes us cringe most of all is Ivan’s call to Katrina, explaining why exactly he will not be home tonight.  Katrina spends most of her in-between time considering whether to kick Ivan out of the house for his infidelity (and the fact that he kept this a secret for seven months), though of course we never see her, or anyone else but Ivan.  Bethan has her own problems in the hospital, at which you can guess, and about which Ivan spends as much time worrying as he does about the pour or his family.

Ivan’s journey over the spiraling English highways isn’t just a descent from one piece of terrible news to another, however.  Ivan still has a goal: he will successfully prepare the concrete pour over the phone despite the fact that he is no longer in charge of it.  He refers to the mammoth building that will soon be built as “my building,” and guides his former underling, Irishman Donal (Andrew Scott), whose predicament is somehow amplified when we cannot actually see his face, through the grueling preparations.

Locke is not a story with only one character, but it’s a film wherein only one actor’s face is seen, and the whole thing takes place on a single claustrophobic set.  Tom Hardy must carry the entire movie, and he does.  Whether his character is sympathetic is subjective, and doesn’t quite matter because his three major conflicts are so different, but his decision to play things Lawful Good seems like an attempt on director Steven Knight’s part to nudge the audience in the sympathy direction.  We want all of this to work out for Ivan, both as a film audience and as witnesses to the serious pain of several people, but as both of those things, we’d also feel cheated if everything did work out for him.

There are a couple of characterizations that don’t quite sit well: Katrina’s incredulity befits any stereotypical Wife to a Bearded Movie Hero, whether or not her final decision is understandable, and Donal, the film’s only Irishman, drinks heavily through almost the entire story (and gets more than a little feisty when you hassle him about it).  Missteps like this can’t be overlooked in such a tight film because they’re more glaring than they would be anywhere else.  Here, they remind us that everything and everyone outside of Ivan’s car are pieces that must fit into exact place at exact times, over and over, ad (almost) infinitum.

One-man and one-woman shows are all over the place, and the conventions of film, small-cinema and otherwise, are being reinvented on a yearly basis (check out last year’s Blue is the Warmest Color), so I don’t need to sell you Locke by calling it ambitious.  But it is.  In a world where the CG grows more ludicrous, advertisements for 3D movies won’t go away, and the explosions and giant robots only get bigger, Locke is unabashedly small, a deliberate implosion of all that big noise.

Locke (2014); written and directed by Steven Knight; starring Tom Hardy.