When Roger Ebert wrote that he could watch a Fellini movie on the radio, he meant it as a compliment. Steven Knight’s “Locke” feels like it was designed for one. It’s a labored, 85-minute long experiment in audio-visual (mostly audio) storytelling in which a man gets into a car, takes incessant phone calls, and drives. What aims to be a test of minimal storytelling ends up feeling like one long trailer. The headlights along the road always dance and try to set the mood, but “Locke” ultimately never arrives anywhere.
The man driving the car is Ivan Locke, played by Tom Hardy, and he is the only person who will appear on camera throughout the film’s duration. Upon leaving his job at a construction site as a foreman for pouring concrete, he makes a last minute decision and sets off driving from Birmingham to London, never looking back.
His destination? Locke is traveling to a hospital to visit a woman having his baby. Along the way he will speak with his wife and family waiting for him at home, his boss and colleague freaking out over how he’s abandoned a major job, and his mistress going through labor pains in the hospital.
With each party, Locke expresses his utmost honestly, delivered calmly and clearly over the phone in a velvety Welsh accent. Why doesn’t he lie to work and say he’s sick? Why doesn’t he wait to tell his wife why he’s not coming home until tomorrow? And why not lie to comfort the woman he’s going to see?
That he doesn’t make these choices is all part of Locke’s integrity and principles as a character, and naturally by design by Knight, who also wrote the screenplay. “Locke” is about a man confined inside the box of his own head, grappling with these choices. He’s firm in his resolve to reach his destination, fully accepting the price.
But like the story he’s stuck in, Locke’s character feels more like a contrivance than an actual person. When he answers the phone, he says his name like it’s a single word, “Ivanlocke”. And he speaks in such a workmanlike tone, firmly explaining his intentions to colleagues and family, that it’s hard to imagine he has any sort of life outside of this car or his own head. His sons are awaiting him for a soccer game, and his wife is wearing a shirt that’s considered an inside joke. But Locke emotes not even a hint of a sense of humor, least of all sexuality that would’ve led him to have an affair.
Hardy is a fiery actor, and it’s a fault of the direction that he’s playing Locke with such cold, humorless intensity. Locke is a “concrete farmer,” but he sounds like a Shakespearean Thespian. Listening to his wife, family and boss over the phone, you wonder what movie this guy actually belongs to.
Every 20 minutes or so, “Locke” breaks from the back and forth phone tagging and shows Locke berating the back seat of his car, a hint to the dark depths of his mind. But Knight never truly places us in that passenger’s chair. Locke’s life falls apart over the course of his drive, but the only decision he makes is made before the title card shows up. With a story like this, there’s little sense of what comes next for him at the end of the road.