USA Great Britain (85 mi) 2013 ‘Scope d: Steven Knight Official site
Steven Knight may be a billionaire, as he’s the creator of the original British version of the TV quiz show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (1998 – present) that became such an international success, with the Indian version featured in Danny Boyle’s SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008), a show that has become a fixture on television around the world and continues to rake in millions. He followed that with two excellent screenplays, as he wrote Stephen Frears’ DIRTY PRETTY THINGS (2002) and David Cronenberg’s EASTERN PROMISES (2007), both known for the urgency expressed in the intelligently realistic scripts, while only recently has be directed movies, starting with REDEMPTION (2013) and this film released in the same year. LOCKE is an experimental film that feels like a writing exercise, as it’s similar in tone to American J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost (2013), where a single man appears onscreen throughout the film, literally carrying the emotional heft of the picture. While Robert Redford received outstanding reviews for a wordless performance while stranded alone at sea in Chandor’s film, Tom Hardy’s role as a man under siege by increasingly stressful car phone calls is more understated and reserved, though the circumstances of the narrative mysteries both veer out of control, testing the patience and ability to think under pressure for both men. That one may be more successful than the other is incidental, as both are forced to deal with dire circumstances, where the journey is placing us in their predicament. As difficult as it is to imagine a movie built around a single shot expressing the same vantage point throughout the film, seen almost entirely through the front windshield of the car where driver Hardy as Ivan Locke sits, this minimalist film is a radio play where Knight alters the tone through an incessant barrage of voices intruding into the driver’s constricted space, where the abrasive sound design of perhaps a hundred car phone calls tells the story, becoming a slowly building accumulation of inner turbulence. Even as the road is mostly flat and straight, shot under cover of darkness throughout, Locke is initially seen stopped at a red light coming home from work, but he remains in pause mode even after the light changes, where the truck behind him sounds the horn, and as he turns, his decision sets the story in motion.
Shot in real time, we quickly learn that Locke has informed his kids that he’s going to miss an after-school soccer game, something he promised not to miss, apologizing to his two sons while also informing a construction crew supervisor named Donal (Andrew Scott) that he’d have to handle a major assignment alone, as Locke, the site foreman, could not be there. Donal goes ballistics, as it’s the largest concrete pour in European history outside of government or military installations, where Locke, supposedly an expert in concrete, continually tries to calm him down, encouraging him that he would be there over the phone to advise him through it, where all he has to do is follow his instructions step by step. Added to the mix is a woman named Bethan (Olivia Colman) who’s in the hospital about to deliver a baby, where Locke, who hasn’t yet informed his wife, is the baby’s father. Bethan apparently initiated this series of events by calling to inform Locke that her water broke, not having had any contact since the date of conception. While it’s a major commitment on his part, walking away from a huge industrial event that requires plenty of checks and balances, as the foundation of a planned skyscraper must be poured right, where the foreman is in charge of timing small groups of over a hundred trucks, where roads must be shut down ahead of time to make way for them to proceed to the site unimpeded. Meanwhile Locke is receiving incoming calls from his boss Gareth (Ben Daniels), who he freezes out before the night is done, concentrating exclusively on Donal, guiding his every step, while also having to inform his wife Katrina (Ruth Wilson) that he won’t becoming home that evening, who doesn’t take the news well at all, becoming emotionally devastated, locking herself in the bathroom, much to the concern of her two sons who can only suspect something serious is happening. All these calls and their concerns interlink, flooding the emotions of the driver, where it’s all too much for one man to handle, especially while heading in the opposite direction of his family and his career, as one suspects it’s only a matter of time before the inevitable tragedy occurs.
The visual landscape is in constant change throughout, as it’s a neverending stream of lights illuminated by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, continually changing shape, at times evolving into a kaleidoscope color scheme, as the driver’s face is part of a moving montage of reflected images, where there is no stopping on the road, no fixed image, where it’s all a stream-of-conscious mindset determined by the endless procession of phone calls, each delving deeper and deeper into his own personal nightmare, where within an hour he loses whatever stability he’s spent his entire life constructing. Making matters worse is a surreal conversation he holds with his deceased father, bitterly angry at him for not being there when Locke grew up, where he’s absolutely certain not to make the same mistake with this coming child, even as he barely knows the mother, as he continually reminds the ghost of his father that he can handle it, simultaneously juggling all these personal catastrophes, as if to prove himself capable because his father couldn’t. Despite the calm reassurance he tries to project, where he’s known for his meticulous detail and reliability, always being careful and precise, his interior world is a flood of chaotic emotions when things start spiraling out of control, where the enormous implications of the calamity at hand only bleaken his outlook, as he feels helpless to right the sinking ships when he’s not at the control. His late model BMW car has a digital push button rolodex that he can access hands free through his steering wheel, highlighting a ridiculous number of names and phone numbers, all neatly alphabetized, where the viewer begins to recognize the recurring names and the degree of difficulty escalates with each successive call, where his sense of duty comes into question. Why is he jeopardizing all that matters most for someone he can barely even remember? The blur of lights move in and out of focus, as do the headlights, the wheels, the noise of the traffic beside him, the continual anguish on his face, and always the everpresent road that lies ahead of him. The musical soundtrack by the Tindersticks’ Dickon Hinchliffe, so prevalent in Claire Denis films, couldn’t be a better fit, as the sensuousness of sound and image are wonderfully interlocked, while the jarring interruption of disastrous phone calls becomes an obstacle course of jagged edges to maneuver, where Locke insists upon balancing each one with the needed calmness and dexterity, irrespective of the dark undertones of impending disaster. In the end, it’s the call he “doesn’t” take that has the greatest impact, a recorded message that becomes a clarifying moment when the personal becomes magnified, when his youngest son so innocently seems to have it all figured out, even if he’s too young to understand the true depth of the problem, yet he has faith that his Dad can somehow pull it all together and life will go on as before.