Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is having a rough night. A mistake he made last year with another woman, outside of his marriage, is sending him on an hour and a half drive towards a hospital in London where she is going into premature labor. This is of course occurring the night before he is supposed to supervise the biggest commercial concrete pour in Europe's history, and on the night that he has plans to watch a major football game with his wife and children. When he enters his car, Ivan has a wife, children, and an impressive career; by the time he reaches his end destination, some of those things will vanish and others will be at severe risk. He elects to do what he believes is right regardless of the personal cost in an attempt to rectify a wrong perpetrated in his own upbringing by his long absent father. Locke is the story of a man facing the annihilation of the life he has built in the midst of one crack in a carefully crafted facade and finding a sense of freedom therein.
Steven Knight (the writer of Eastern Promises) has formulated Locke as an incredibly sparse affair. The film is presented in real time, with the camera simply focused on Hardy and his character's commute into a new destiny. Other characters are presented only as phone conversations that Locke has via his bluetooth connection as he attempts to keep his world from spinning too far out of control. On it's face, this sounds like a relatively dull premise, yet Knight's careful precision behind the camera never lets the tension relent. It takes a special kind of talent to make something this minimalist feel so vivid, but Knight's inspired camera angles give way to a sense of dramatic urgency and the supporting players are "fleshed out" to the point that despite the fact that we never see anyone else, they never feel anything less than real, their concerns always approaching the immediate.
This praise, of course, fails to mention Locke's strongest asset, which is Hardy's performance. Regardless of the additional voices that are present, Locke is basically a one man show and Hardy is mesmerizing throughout. Ivan Locke is constructed as a low-key Welshman who has a life that is very segmented and organized, with little of interest beyond his family and work. As everything begins to collapse around him, Locke continues to strive for normalcy while cracks begin to show in his psyche, including an on-going discussion he has with his father, whom he imagines is in the backseat of his vehicle. Hardy's performance is so carefully modulated, that its easy to believe the inner struggle that is occurring within a man who is facing a rebirth of sorts and does it in such a charismatic fashion that its impossible not to sympathize when things slip through his fingers. Locke is a showcase for how one performer, particularly his face (which is basically all we see) can drive a film forward. Despite the basic nature of the plot, everything we need to know regarding Locke's character traits, particularly his inner tragedy and sometimes good nature, is succinctly portrayed in Hardy's facial features. It's a master class of acting, and will likely be one of the finer performances seen in 2014.
A particular highlight comes when Locke has a conversation with one of his sons regarding the outcome of the football game he missed. His son is aching for a chance to have a normal conversation with his father, and Locke, who may have just had the last conversation he'll have with his wife in the midst of the marriage, is not able to oblige. The tears streaming down his face while he attempts to hold all of this personal chaos together is the first outward sign of emotional instability that Locke displays to another person and its one of the most heart-breaking scenes in the film. Locke is a story filled with moments like this, a story of a man damned no matter which way he might turn. It has a few moments of "over-exposition" in the scenes in which he converses with his imaginary father, but it's a minor conceit that can be forgiven to underline the issues that compel the story forward.
While there are moments throughout the film that I wondered if he ever would ever reach his end-point at the hospital, with the tension that comes from someone distractedly driving; the metaphorical car-crash had already occurred for Ivan Locke, during a cold, lonely night with too much wine. Everything that occurs during Locke's 90 minute journey is the painful aftermath, and makes for one of year's most intriguing theatrical experiences.