If nothing else — which is not to say, mind you, that it is nothing else — Steven Knight's “Locke” must surely rank among the most doggedly literal road movies of all time. So many titles within that famed subgenre stray far from the defining location: into motel bedrooms, into exterior shootouts, into any number of off-road travel routes. Not “Locke,” which plants its eponymous protagonist behind the wheel and keeps him there for 80-odd minutes — not a challenging stretch of time for any car trip, but an imposing test for filmmaker and actor alike.
In “Locke,” a lone man drives a hundred or so miles from Birmingham to London and makes a few phone calls; that is what happens. Somehow, amid all this, an urgent domestic melodrama plays out on the tarmac, changing the course of several unseen lives as the visible figure at the center of it all, the one responsible for the upheaval, calmly keeps his eyes on the road. In the UK, marketing for “Locke” has made a commercially understandable attempt to disguise the film's stillness, using blurred imagery and forward-rushing text to imply a very different kind of thriller. But that rather defeats the point of the exercise: locating and holding the tension in inertia, the immediacy in indirect contact.
“Exercise” isn't a casual choice of word: it's what this film unapologetically remains from first scene to last — even as his frequently overstated script toys with the heartstrings, Knight (the Oscar-nominated writer of “Dirty Pretty Things”) seems more interested in the mechanics of dramatizing this scenario than in the scenario itself. That's not entirely a bad thing. “Locke's” story — family man comes clean with wife and mistress as the latter goes into labor — is so banally soap-operatic as to be incidental; arcs of equivalent consequence play out on “Coronation Street” every day. It's the execution that stirs the mind and occasionally stills the heart: the twitching crevices that patient cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos finds in Tom Hardy's great face, and the mannered rhythms that the actor finds in Knight's hyper-naturalistic dialogue.
Hardy, if you haven't gathered by now, plays Ivan Locke, a genial, seemingly grounded construction manager who leaves his current work site late one evening on a mission; a frown settling gently into his bearded visage, he calls home to tell his adolescent son Eddie (voiced by “The Impossible” star Tom Holland) that he won't make it back for family football-watching night — a small betrayal that portends a far larger one. Work would ordinarily be a pretty convincing alibi: throughout this long night's journey into day, his personal conversations are criss-crossed by calls regarding failing concrete contractors on the skyscraper build Locke is supervising, threatening an almighty professional crisis in the morning.
First, though, there's the small matter of Bethan (voiced with customarily sympathetic care by Olivia Colman), a former one-night stand now giving birth to Locke's child in central London. As he barrels down the M6 highway to do right by a woman he hardly knows and doesn't love, he takes this moment to confess his infidelity to his understandably aggrieved wife (Ruth Wilson), and to effectively tell his sons that the family unit, as they know it, is no more. All in a night's work, then.
It's a premise as narratively simple as it is personally, tortuously complicated — the stuff of good radio drama, really, with its compact real-time structure and tidy moral architecture. Knight himself doesn't seem to have complete confidence in its minimalism, undercutting its elegance with sticky, over-explicative reams of dialogue: repeated exchanges between Locke and his sons about the ongoing football match he's missing drive home the pathos with all the restraints and delicacy of a wooden mallet.
Would that the director had more faith in Hardy, whose adroit shuffle of tics and expressions add any amount of nuance you'd lose by listening to “Locke” with your eyes shut — though you'd still get his trembling, rivetingly melodic voice, a fluting Welsh accent perhaps chosen for no reason but to encourage notions of Hardy as his generation's Richard Burton. If so, the comparison holds. Hardy has justifiably cultivated a reputation as one of the last remaining wild-man actors, possessed of both brilliant intensity and feral eccentricity, so it's fascinating to see him play someone so tenderly, atypically ordinary, his rough beauty even softened by heavy beard and baggy woollen sweater. (Between this and “Lawless,” incidentally, Hardy has done more for men's knitwear than any star since James Dean.)
It's Hardy's performance that finally makes more than a neat gimmick of “Locke,” a star showcase that doesn't indulge its lead in the way that star showcases usually do — instead of giving him limitless room to flex, it gives him as little as possible to prove what he can do. It's as fascinating to watch Hardy negotiate the actorly challenges of the piece as it is to watch him animate the unremarkable collapse of Ivan Locke, his fine-line desperation making the words “tomorrow is another day” less than a comfort, and barely a guarantee.