When one thinks on the conventions of genre, the word ‘thriller’ covers a lot of ground. It’s also more than a slight misnomer, considering how many purported thrillers fail to hit their mark and lack much in the way of thrills. An over-dependence on choreographed action and plots that are either too complex or completely lack complexity may have cloyed our tastes. Then, once in a while, we get a little gift like Steven Knight’s Locke and a balance feels restored. The plot is multi-faceted yet manageable. The thrills come from the story and not the stunts. And it’s a character piece! Oh, we are being spoiled.
So, what’s Locke about? Foundations. Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy, with a damn-near-perfect Welsh accent) is a construction manager on the cusp of his professional coup de grace, namely the pouring of over 200 truckloads of concrete for a new skyscraper’s foundation in Birmingham. Locke’s personal situation looks built on solid ground too, with a wife and two sons. All well and good, but Knight’s best work (his scripts for Eastern Promises for Cronenberg and Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things) always plunges ordinary people into the deep end, battling their own mistakes and the ever-turning wheels of fate. One such mistake sends Locke driving south overnight to London, where his partner in a one-night stand is about to give birth to his child. Jeopardising his family and career, foundations of all kinds are crumbling under Locke’s feet.
All of this could get quite soapy quite quickly, but Knight’s hook is to contain the action within Locke’s 4×4, putting Hardy front and centre, supported only by voiceover performances. On the way to London, Locke has to call his colleague Donal (a hilariously exasperated Andrew Scott) to oversee the concrete pouring, before calling his wife Katrina (Ruth Wilson) to tell her the truth, and the maternity hospital to check on expectant mother Bethan (Olivia Colman). The supporting cast give their all to convey the heartbreak and exasperation of the scenario, but this is the Tom Hardy show, and he is nothing short of great. The character of Locke is riddled with very human contradictions. He tries to hold everything together calmly when making his phone calls, only to lash out once he’s hung up. The ease with which Hardy switches between the two is positively scary; it could all drive a man off the road. He very nearly does when he has one-sided conversations with his late father via the rear-view mirror. There’s a dignity and desperation to Ivan’s quest for control and what’s right for all than ensures we can forgive him, even though he can’t forgive himself. Meanwhile, Knight’s script keeps interrupting the various calls and sending both Locke and his audience closer to the edge. We know his intended destination, but guessing where he’ll actually end up is another matter.
With a restrictive setting, an eight-night shooting schedule and not much in the way of action beyond a moving vehicle, Knight makes the most of what he has, namely a compelling setup and a magnetic leading man. The film focuses intently on Hardy’s bearded, gruff face. The same face is lit by the street lighting ever sweeping by, with DP Haris Zambarloukos capturing that illicit midnight haze. Locke has the trappings of a stage play, but it’s nimbly acted and directed, ensuring it escapes many of the pitfalls to which stage adaptations are usually prey. Locke is never stagey; the regrets and naïve calm of the man behind the wheel feel all too human to be staged.