Minimalism is a rare sight in modern cinema, as it seems to be wholly incompatible with the contemporary style of escapist film making that aims to transport the audience as far away from the mundane and realistic as possible. This is particularly obvious in blockbuster movies, the same ones that owe their very existence to Alfred Hitchcock who famously said that “Cinema is not a slice of life, but a piece of cake.”. Hitchcock was at the forefront of American cinema’s growth during and after WWI so it comes as no surprise that modern Hollywood follows his philosophy quite closely.
Locke sets itself apart by embracing the minimalist style that has been shunned by commercial film and presenting its story in a manner that is both intriguingly unique and, perhaps paradoxically, rather tame and grounded. Ivan Locke has monumentally screwed up his life. A woman that he barely knows is having his baby in London, more than an hour away from where he lives, while his wife and kids are at home, waiting for him to finish work so they can watch that night’s football match together. Ivan himself is an illegitimate child and his sense of duty and honor gets the better of him, prompting him to drive over to London for his child’s birth, abandoning both his family and work in the process. The whole film takes place in Locke’s car, during his 85 minute drive to London, as he does his best to pick up the pieces of his shattered life over the phone. He loses his job because he won’t be able to show up for a historic concrete pour that he was supposed to be overseeing, leaving his employer scrambling to find a replacement in the middle of the night. He tells his wife about his “one-off affair”. Understandably, she doesn’t take it well.
That’s all fine and dandy, but one might be inclined to think that watching a man talk over the phone while driving a car for 85 minutes would be an incredibly dull affair. And perhaps it could be, for the viewer who goes into it without having any experience with European cinema (yes, British films do count as such) and its typically slower and more human approach to film making. But Tom Hardy is able to turn anything into a spectacle, delivering perhaps his best performance to date, and showing for the umpteenth time in his career that he can do pretty much anything on the screen. Locke closely resembles a stage-play, relying solely on Hardy (the only actor who we can actually see) to provide subtext and foreshadowing for the events to follow. It’s something that he is no stranger to, as one of his first big leading roles (in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Bronson) featured some segments that were, quite literally, stage plays, with Hardy performing in front of a live audience. Locke‘s success hinged almost solely on its protagonist and it absolutely needed someone as talented as Hardy to pull it off properly. Few actors have the ability to express so much with just their face and upper body while in the close confines of a moving car. He cycles effortlessly between emotions, switches between his work and family selves, delivers his dialogue so naturally that at times it seems like he’s making it up on the fly. Of course, the voices over the telephone help quite a bit in that respect, and Olivia Coleman, Andrew Scott and Tom Holland all deliver some great voice work.
Visually, the film goes for a certain style and rolls with it all throughout. The camera can’t exactly around too much while in a moving car, so DP Zambarloukos had to come up with ways to convey as much meaning as possible while keeping the imagery almost completely stationary, save for the occasional bumps in the road. One of the main camera angles is directly in front of Hardy and uses the front window of the car as sort of canvas. Lights dance across it and prevent the image from becoming stale and sterile. These lights also serve a narrative purpose, occasionally acting as a visualization of Ivan Locke’s inner turmoil, blinking in and out of existence, shining right next to his head before going out to signify the end of something – his marriage, his career, his hatred for his father. The imagery in the film is fuzzy and quaint. I personally find it almost uncanny in its resemblance to my own memories of travelling at night, it captures the sense of constant movement and transition, by putting an emphasis on bokeh, at times letting it take over the whole screen and using it as a transition to wider angles that show the highway. The lengthened light bubbles produced by the anamorphic lens are frequently superimposed on the windows of the car or on Hardy’s face, which we also frequently see through the front window rather than through the camera placed in the passenger seat next to him at a slightly lower angle.
Overall, Locke is a great example of making do with very little, both financially and spatially. Its script could have done with some tweaking in order to make Ivan’s decisions more impactful (because a lot of the time we’re left with the feeling that whatever happened would’ve still happened even without his involvement in it), but the writing is superb, the direction is delightfully minimalist and Hardy is at the top of his game, making for a movie well worth watching.