As concrete contractor extraordinaire, Ivan Locke, the actor Tom Hardy speaks in the calm and soothing voice of a Delta airline pilot navigating a thunderstorm or a mellifluous oncologist suavely describing a mortal tumor -- while all hell is breaking loose around him, he keeps his uncanny cool. The only time Locke sounds passionate and, even, a bit agitated is when he is denouncing his dead-beat absentee father or extolling the virtues of concrete, a substance that he says is "delicate as blood." Locke's kindly equipoise belies the fact that the hero of Steven Knight's one-character tour de force is at the center of a hurricane of conflicting obligations. Locke's sons want him home with their Mum, watching a soccer tournament on the telly. But Locke is responsible for the pour of 250 million tons of concrete, a process due to commence at 5:25 am the next morning -- it is, Locke announces with a touch of pride, the largest concrete pour in construction history excluding "the nuclear and military industries" and an event of "historic" proportions. But most vexing is the fact that Locke is about to become a father -- as a result of a one-night stand a woman that he doesn't even know very well is in labor in London. And Locke, as a rebuke to his own dead and irresponsible father, has decided to drive from the construction site to the London hospital where the woman is about to give birth, a delivery that is both premature and complicated by the umbilicus wrapped around the infant's throat. In the course of the ninety minute drive to the hospital, that is between about 7:45 and 9:15 pm, Greenwich Mean Time, Locke will lose his job, his wife, his house, and his family.
Steven Knight's 2014 film chronicles Locke's drive to London, keeping the camera either inside of Locke's SUV, a nice rig equipped with a state-of-the-art telephone and navigation system or closely adjacent to the vehicle, tracking Locke's face in close-up through the windshield as passing vehicles make abstract patterns of light on the glass. Sometimes, Knight will vary his shots by blurring focus and allowing ruby taillights and amber headlights to dance and coruscate in a frame that is otherwise dark. The film's content is a series of phone calls that Locke makes, conversations with his employer who is firing him for deserting the project, a subordinate panicked at his responsibility for supervising the concrete pour, his enraged wife, and the hysterical woman in labor at the London hospital. The film is gripping although devoid of any actual suspense -- as with child birth and pouring concrete, the die is cast once the process initiates. The story can have only one terminus and Locke's dilemma plays out along strictly defined and predictable lines -- the film is, in effect, a one-way road. (The only glimmer of indeterminacy occurs in the opening three minutes, before the audience knows what is going on -- Locke starts his SUV, comes to an intersection, and pauses inexplicably after the light has turned green; a truck honks at him and, then, he puts the vehicle in gear and proceeds. Presumably, this moment in the film records the instant at which Locke has decided to put his career in jeopardy by traveling to London to attend upon the birth of his illegitimate child.) The movie is exceptionally well-written; Locke's rhapsodies on concrete are poetic, but sufficiently restrained to seem plausible and all of the voices on the phone are highly articulate, argumentative, and penetrating -- Locke's wife complains that he is so enamored with concrete that his footprints turn to stone in her kitchen. The only aspect of the film that I thought a misfire was Locke's accusatory outbursts directed to the empty backseat of his car and aimed at his dead father, a man who apparently deserted his family when Locke was a child. By compensation, Locke has become obsessively responsible, omni-competent, as one voice on the phone says "the best man in England" -- and, indeed, the film certainly excels in its project of showing a certain kind of particularly British virtue, the prosaic quality of assuming responsibility for one's actions including, as it happens, squalid mistakes. The movie is a paean to certain masculine qualities that have fallen out of favor -- stoicism, grace under pressure, skill and resourcefulness, and honor. Locke is the kind of picture that Howard Hawks might have made, a tribute to the concept of doing a difficult job capably and without whining. It's a good movie but airless and a tiny bit inconsequential -- Locke is so extraordinarily competent that there is no question that he will be able to find suitable employment with some other contractor, that his wife will forgive him and he will be reunited with his sons who worship him, and, that, even, all will be well with the poor distressed fetus in the London hospital. The road-closings will work out fine and the concrete will be properly poured and appropriately cured. Locke's reassuring voice makes this clear.