British construction foreman Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is a happily married father of two. The night before he is scheduled to oversee a record-setting concrete pour, he forsakes watching a big football match with his family to be present for the birth of his illegitimate child, the product of a single night of infidelity with a woman he barely knows. As Ivan cruises the highway en route to the hospital, a series of tense phone calls bring his personal and professional life to ruin. However, he is determined not to walk in the footsteps of his late father, who abandoned him as a child.
For as many films as there are that fail to deliver on a promising premise, there is the rare film that succeeds despite sounding like a terrible idea on paper. Locke falls in the latter camp. Directed and written by Steven Knight, it unfolds in real time, and from the moment the title character enters his car, the camera almost never leaves him. An hour and a half of a character driving and talking has the potential to be excruciating, but it ends up captivating due to the precision of its script and the competence of its star.
Hardy, who sports a quirky Welsh accent, continues to excel at portraying characters who have a lot going on beneath the surface. Ivan starts the journey with an air of almost impenetrable calm and maintains it even while he comes clean to his wife and colleagues. But between phone calls, he seethes with resentment at his dead disappearing dad. Even as his frustration grows as the trip progresses, Hardy avoids the clichéd and predictable epiphany-inducing meltdown that would have sunk his credibility (and this film along with it).
Oddly, this bit of verisimilitude also serves as a hindrance. There is some semblance of closure by the end, but the viewer can’t help but feel cheated by the lack of a payoff. Even a quiet, grounded film can have its share of big moments, but there is nary a one to be found here, an absence that robs the film of impact and often tests the audience’s patience.
There are, however, plenty of amusing little moments. Through a series of conversations with Ivan, beleaguered second-in-command Donal (voice of Andrew Scott) goes from being completely overwhelmed by the prospect of tacking charge to amusingly drunk. And then there is Ivan’s awkward attempt to clarify the nature of his relationship with the mother-to-be to a hospital administrator. Every time a “her partner” is tossed his way, he insistently replies that he is “the father.” Knight’s stage-like feel for dialogue is in good form in these exchanges.
To be certain, Locke’s low-key unconventionality will prove maddening to a certain segment of viewers. But those with the requisite patience can appreciate a convincing (and mercifully compact) look at how one man tries to come to terms with a colossal screw-up.