One of the most underappreciated advances in cinema history -- perhaps because not a lot of people think of it as something that had to be invented -- is the close-up, especially a tight shot on the expressive face of an actor deeply aware of the subtle emotions a movie camera can capture. Add a talented crew to the mix, and the narrative impact of a well-wrought close-up far exceeds anything that can be achieved with a few hundred million dollars of special effects. Yet studios often ignore the elemental power of filmmaking, choosing instead to overwhelm moviegoers with images and sounds that signify nothing.
Fans of the close-up -- and Tom Hardy's protean mug, as well -- should revel in Steven Knight's "Locke," his second feature film as both writer and director. Taking full advantage of Hardy's prodigious acting chops and the visual creativity of cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, Knight fashions a nerve-rattling minimalist gem, set almost entirely inside an SUV heading down the highway from Birmingham to London. The driver is a reserved workaholic striver named Ivan Locke (Hardy), whose only companion on the 84-minute journey is the viewer.
Framed by an unsettling array of streaking nighttime lights, Locke places and receives a series of fraught phone calls that collectively bring his troubled circumstances into sharp focus. A Welsh construction site supervisor, Locke should be on his way home to watch a big soccer match with his wife and sons, passing a restful evening with his loved ones before overseeing a monumental task early the next day: A record-setting concrete pour for a massive building project. Instead, he is London bound, a prisoner of one bad decision and his own unwavering conscience.
Knight's intense character study is deftly pieced together, so it is best not to reveal too much about Locke's moral predicament. Suffice it to say, his mistake was a whopper, and it will prevent him from returning to Birmingham in the morning to do his job. On the phone his flabbergasted boss (Ben Daniels) expresses anger and disbelief at learning that the unfailingly reliable Locke is choosing to wreck his hard-earned reputation by jeopardizing the pour, a potential catastrophe which could cost the building's investors a mountain of money. Locke's hand-picked stand-in (Andrew Scott) is equally nonplussed, but Locke, in what scant time he has left, is determined to talk his jittery replacement through the final preparations for tomorrow's difficult undertaking. Paradoxically, Locke is someone who fulfills his obligations, even when he is apparently running away from them.
Although Locke often mystifies his Bluetooth interlocutors -- a group that includes his wife (Ruth Wilson) and sons (Tom Holland and Bill Milner) -- what he tells them eventually does cohere into an understandable, if profoundly complicated, personality. Substantial credit for this accomplishment, of course, belongs to Hardy who thrives under limitations that would thwart many other actors. More than anything else, Hardy admirably holds firm to his character's fixed emotional palette, trusting the audience to follow along despite the movie's deliberate pacing and absence of attention-demanding histrionics.
Hardy also clearly has faith in Knight's taut script, which, though circumscribed, still tells a compelling story about a man unwilling to compromise his personal integrity to save all that he holds dear. Sure, there is an experimental aspect to the entire endeavor, but "Locke" never comes across as a film school exercise, as a work meant to be appreciated rather than enjoyed. It is riveting on its own scaled-down terms.
Having also written the thoughtful thrillers "Dirty Pretty Things" and "Eastern Promises," it is clear that Knight knows how to keep an audience on edge; with "Locke," he proves that he can generate tension even under the least conducive conditions. That is certainly extraordinary. But what really sets Knight's writing apart is its insightfulness about the lives of have-nots who are desperate to have something. Although Locke has overcome his humble beginnings and actually achieved a great deal, the past is forever lurking in his rear-view mirror as a reminder and a threat. By the end of his dark trip, you learn if it finally catches up to him.