Sunday, April 27, 2014

Locke (***)

Written and Directed by Steven Knight


At its basest form, Locke is a gimmick film. Whether it's fair to do so or not, it's easy to imagine the responsible filmmaker creating the basic conceit (for this film: one character driving in a car for the entire ninety minutes of the movie) and then working backwards. The film is by Steven Knight, a man who has written several very good screenplays that went on to become very good movies (Stephen Frears' Dirty Pretty Things and David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises being the most heralded examples). Locke is only the second film that he's directed (the first being the Jason Statham-led Redemption which impressed little, then came and went rather quietly), but the narrative oddity of the script gives it a sort of unique quality - as if Knight may have been keeping this one stowed away for himself. Films of this limited a dramatic arena are always impressive, the difficulty of pulling off such a feet is apparent on the screen. We're watching an actor (in this case, Tom Hardy) boil an entire performance into one sequence, which gives the audience a feeling of purity. It's the reason we're always impressed by this kind of acting and filmmaking: the margin of error is terribly present to anyone who happens to be awake.

But Locke manages to rise above its contemporary doppelgangers like Phone Booth or Buried. Those other films depended too heavily on plot contrivance to keep their lead characters entrapped within their enclosed space (they also employed malevolent, unseen antagonists to threaten these men into their traps). Locke is built entirely from its main character, Ivan Locke (played by Hardy), who's built his own prison inside his BMW and sits in it both painfully and willfully. But the common denominator within all these films (for a more classical example, Robert Altman's Secret Honor is another terrific one-man show of a film) is that they are platforms for the actor. Watching a performer toil away on what seems like a single scene is the closest the movies can come to a theatrical performance (what will always be seen as the purest form of acting), and even when the performances are simply slightly above mediocre - again, like Phone Booth and Buried, which starred Colin Farrell and Ryan Reynolds, respectively - it always appears like a much greater effort. Luckily, Knight is working with an actor like Tom Hardy, who so often performs without vanity and is able to push the material first, with his excellent acting being a perk.

Knight is making a gimmick film, but he's a smart enough writer to know that almost any film can feel gimmicky enough if done poorly, and any gimmick can feel refreshing if done well. As usual, his script is tight, pushed by motivations and formatted in a way that would make Robert McKee proud. But I don't mean to say it lacks identity. Knight has a soft spot for the tucked away corners of lower-to-middle class English people - like a more narrative-based Mike Leigh - and Locke is no exception. The character of Ivan Locke is a construction foreman, a salt-of-the-Earth working man known for his strong principles and running a tight ship. Ivan is so compelled with the idea of "doing the right thing" that he's blind to how the right thing may end up effecting other people irreparably. On the night before what will probably be the most important day of Ivan's professional career, he receives shocking news that requires him to drop everything and drive straight for London. He leaves behind a complicated concrete pour that would be the base of his most ambitious construction project to date. He also leaves a wife who respects her husband's nobility even if he does obsess over his work, and two sons who love him and share an enthusiastic soccer fandom.

Locke withholds the information behind Ivan's abandonment in its early moments, and for my money, could have withheld it for even longer and added to the film's early mystery (and even though its revealed so early that it's hardly a spoiler, I won't reveal it here). As it stands, Locke commits to its melodrama from the get-go and the entire film is made up of Ivan driving down the highway in between numerous telephone calls from several different people imploring why the hell is he doing this. This includes Donal (Andrew Scott), a fresh-faced right-hand man who now finds himself in over his head as Ivan's replacement on the construction site. Then there's his boss, Gareth (Ben Daniels), who's unsurprisingly not sympathetic to Locke's plight. And of course, there's his wife Katrina (Ruth Wilson) who sits dumbfounded by the news that her dedicated husband will not be coming home. These people are all just voices on a complex car phone system that power the movie's main conflict. Knight knows that what's most interesting are Hardy's reactions. Few films are patient enough to just watch its main star sit and listen.

Knight is limited here by what he's able to do visually, and while he and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos do their best to create interesting shots out of reflections, and the editor Justine Wright fills the film with cuts and motifs that are interesting - if not redundant - Locke is locked (no pun intended) into a stale visual format. This is the main area where Buried really excelled, which used its coffin gimmick not as an impediment but an advantage in how to experiment with color and light within an extremely tight area. But Locke is fixed in a much tighter realm of realism than Buried was, and thus is not forced into the same preposterous narrative corner that Buried is.* [see bottom] At times, Locke plays like a film that's terribly conscious of how boring it could be, and Knight probably spends a bit too much time trying to make up for what is lacking on the screen. But Knight is showing that he is above competent at visually translating the complex emotions that are so often the basis of his screenplays, albeit helped with the assistance of good acting.

Tom Hardy is an interesting figure in movies. He's been primed by numerous movie marketing campaigns as one of the next big movie stars, but I'm not totally convinced he totally wants it. When Reynolds took the part in Buried, it felt like an aspiring movie star slumming it in an indie to prove his talent. But the Hardy who acts in Locke feels more comfortable than the one who appears in major studio films like The Dark Knight Rises. Hollywood still sees him as a blunt instrument or a philosophical muscle man. Consider him in Inception where he's basically eye-candy, and then Warrior where he plays a mixed martial artist with the cadence of Mike Tyson with less to say. I think Hardy sees himself as a true thespian, and he should. Performances like those he's given in Warrior and 2008's Bronson prove that he's able to command a movie. Those films took advantage of his gargantuan size and his intimidating physique. Locke is his most ambitious attempt at performing without all of the bells and whistles that come with looking like Tom Hardy. It's a terrific performance. He's able to translate Ivan's inner torment so fluidly from conversation to conversation, representing the different versions of himself that he has played for different people over the years. This is not the kind of film that will help people realize how good he can be, simply because not enough people will see it, but it will get the ball rolling.

I liked this film quite a bit, despite it's faults. Knight is incredibly capable as a director and at the very least he has shown here that he knows how to nurture very good work from a willing performer. It probably is a little too impressed with its own self-impressed limitations, and while its structure is solid, the script does rely a little too heavily on hackneyed character motivations. One of my least favorite in Locke being the character of Ivan being haunted by his deadbeat father from his childhood. This father manifests itself as Ivan screams at an empty backseat while imagining that he's screaming at the father. It produces several silly sequences and has the obvious feel of time-filling. It's to Hardy's credit that these moments don't bury the movie entirely, as he willingly commits to these monologues and never plays them any differently than any of the film's other confrontations. I don't see Locke as proof of Hardy's talent - I believe Bronson was the film that accomplished that - but it showed not only that he has range that far surpasses the rage-pot strong man persona that he's been boxed into, but that he can be a tender, complicated performer who's best work is still ahead of him.

*Let the record show that I actually enjoyed much of Buried but I must repeat that no movie is more thoroughly ruined by such an inane twist ending as that film has.

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