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Weblog From Nowhere-Land

Redemption On The Road

Stephen Knight's LOCKE is a movie about a man trying to hold the world together from behind the wheel of a BMW on the motorway between Cardiff and London, with nothing but a hands-free phone and a tightly-coiled will. It's eighty-four minutes long, and almost every second of that running time is on Tom Hardy as IVAN LOCKE. He's the man at the wheel--the man whose world is coming apart.

What is at stake for Locke is a marriage, a job, and the structural integrity of a forty-eight story office building, but Hardy's performance and Knight's camera tell another, more elemental story. With only a handful of angles at his disposal (none of them any artier than the ghostly views of Hardy's haggard face in the side view mirror) and a stripped-down soundtrack that consists mostly of the thrum of the engine, the bleep of the car phone, and the occasional unnerving thump of the chassis over a bump in the highway, we are made to feel that something far larger is at risk. I watched LOCKE with my (nearly) fifteen year-old son, and at one point we paused. He looked at the readout on the screen and said, "Shit, Dad, there's only twenty minutes left? I don't want it to end!"

If an adult drama with a single actor who has dialogue only with disembodied cell phone voices and the ghost of his dead father can engage the mind of a fifteen year-old who plays Grand Theft Auto and Assassin's Creed, something is going on.

In its elevation of personal tragedy to the realm of universals, of the prosaic to the mythical, LOCKE leaves an after ring as pregnant with meaning as the final piano chord of The Beatles' A Day In The Life. ("He blew his mind out in a car...He didn't notice that the lights had changed") I can't get that ringing out of my head, and don't really want to.

Stephen Knight, the film's director, made his reputation as a screenwriter. He was Oscar-nominated for Stephen Frears' DIRTY PRETTY THINGS, and hailed for David Cronenberg's EASTERN PROMISES. He's already won or been nominated for a number of critics' and/or indie film awards for LOCKE, and recently, the Los Angeles Film Critics, in a surprise move, chose Tom Hardy's Ivan Locke as the year's best performance. So much for the movie's bona fides. Now the commercial reality: it has grossed only $1.4m at the U.S. box office. That probably means that the only people who saw it in the theater were people who thought it was a Tom Hardy action picture, or maybe something along the lines of DRIVE, and most likely walked out very disappointed. It's not anything like those. It's a dark night of the soul via Bluetooth.

The abbreviated synopsis on iTunes informs us that LOCKE is about how a single mistake can alter the course of a life, but I think it's more about how the way we handle our mistakes puts our souls in the crucible. Without revealing too much, Ivan Locke is a general contractor (judging by the BMW, a successful one) responsible for the concrete pour on a massive downtown office building, and thereby for the soundness of its foundation. We are told that the pour involves a "historic" amount of concrete, and that the building's owner is a high-powered corporation based in Chicago, with some very anxious chief executives who are watching every move. It's all to go down at 5:00 am the next morning, but Ivan Locke, the man in charge, won't be there. He won't be there because he is on his way to a London hospital to atone for his sins, and for those of another generation. Until we learn the reason, via the phone calls that provide the film's entire script, it is unknown to Locke's wife, his children, and his employers.

With the exception of a few ellipses, the film takes place in real time. The length of the movie is the length of the drive from Cardiff, Wales to London. (Oddly coincidental that Hardy's first big starring role will be in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, which director George Miller told me eleven years ago--when the film was nothing but storyboards--would be one continuous drive from first frame to last) During this time, we are introduced to the key people in Locke's life, each of them identified only by the readout on his Bluetooth-synchronized display screen as the calls come in. There is 1) HOME, which includes his wife, Katrina, and their two sons, Eddie and Sean (Eddie sounds about the age of my son, Sean is younger); 2) DONAL, who is Locke's anxious wingman, prone to hitting the cider after hours and wholly unprepared to take the controls for his absent boss; 3) BASTARD, who is actually Gareth, Locke's superior and the only guy between him and Chicago; and 4) BETHAN, the woman at the other end of his drive. Cherchez la femme? There she is. I won't tell you why she is, but you'll know within the first fifteen minutes.

Other voices come and go, all of them compelling and each of them acted with great precision, but those above are the core dramatis personae. Along with the dead father, who never speaks.

Locke has a single objective: to put life back in order so that by the time he returns to Cardiff in the morning, everything will be all right. To this one purpose, the character--and the actor portraying him--bring extraordinary focus. Locke is the "director" in every man's psyche (and, I suspect, in many women's), the piece of us that frantically tries to turn the clock back when we've said or done something stupid, or when tragedy has struck. If we are operating a table saw and happen to saw off our index finger, our very first impulse is "Undo! Undo!" followed immediately by thoughts of how to reattach it. We want things back the way they were, and if necessary we'll become stage managing demigods for a night to make it happen. But things don't go according to plan for Ivan Locke, as they often don't for even the most competent and controlling of men. Not everyone in our lives is willing to take direction. Herein lies the movie's drama, and it's a drama with which none of us is unfamiliar.

It's possible that some people will see Ivan Locke as the embodiment of the patriarchal imperative: the big man in his BMW trying to play chess master with his human pieces. Or as a character like Tom Wolfe's Sherman McCoy in Bonfire of the Vanities. But all elements of the film--writing, directing, acting, cinematography, editing, even music--work to frustrate such an easy conclusion. And Hardy so thoroughly humanizes his stoical character that we are sucked into a vortex of empathy. The poor sonofabitch even has to endure his dark night with a raging head cold that has him scooping kleenexes for the length of the drive. And by the time the film reaches the most well-earned ending I've seen in a while, it's hard not to think of Ivan Locke as a man of true moral weight. He has done the one--and sometimes hardest--thing required of any good man: he has answered for his actions.

Very near the end of the film, Locke receives a voicemail from his older son, Eddie. During the course of listening to this message, Tom Hardy undergoes the sort of transformation that ought to win him the Oscar, and transforms the film in the process. In that moment, Locke is redeemed: the sins of the father washed away by his tears. In the following scene, he will hear proof of that redemption in one of life's three most essential sounds. Let me know if it hits you that way. And if you want to know what I think the other two sounds are...
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