To American audiences, Tom Hardy probably remains best known as the hulking heavy of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. But while the British actor conveyed a surprising breadth of personality through a device that both obscured his features and muffled his voice, he does his finest work when not forced to emote behind a mask. Hardy’s latest project, the staunchly minimalist Locke, wagers that his unencumbered charisma can singlehandedly carry a picture. Sporting a Welsh accent and a fashionable flush of facial hair, Hardy plays Ivan Locke, a construction foreman facing a crisis of priorities. On the eve of the biggest job of his career—he’s overseeing the initial laying of concrete for a skyscraper—Ivan climbs into his BMW and begins driving from Birmingham to London, abandoning his duties to take responsibility for some secret misstep. As he toggles between heated phone calls, several things become clear: one, that this little road trip could cost the man his job and family; two, that just about every one of the movie’s 85 minutes will take place within the cramped interior of Ivan’s car; and three, that Hardy will be the only actor who appears on-screen.
There’s a certain charge of excitement in seeing a performer commit to such a conceptually austere project, especially when the mind drifts to the logistics of staging and execution. Yet Locke, as fascinating as it is in theory, never evolves into anything more than a glorified acting exercise. Writer-director Steven Knight, who penned Eastern Promises and helmed the Jason Statham vehicle Redemption, has erected his movie on a foundation of dramatic contrivance. Most of the slim running time consists of Ivan having unconvincing telephone conversations with a small handful of concerned parties, among them his livid boss (Ben Daniels), his livid wife (Ruth Wilson), and the mysterious woman (Olivia Colman) he’s going to meet. Believe that a major construction company would wait until the night before a multi-million dollar job to secure all the necessary permits? If so, then you’ll probably also buy that a major marital conflict could be resolved in maybe three five-minute phone calls. Knight wants us to believe that a life can fall apart over the course of one long drive, but he hasn’t mapped out that downward trajectory in a plausible way.
Visually speaking, there’s a lot of possibility in the scenario of a desperate man tearing down an expressway into an uncertain future. But Locke is weirdly un-cinematic in that regard: Knight mostly just plants the camera in Hardy’s face, cutting occasionally to an establishing shot of the road or a moody cluster of bokeh on the windshield. Ultimately, the focus is on the star’s performance, but what can Hardy do with a character whose psychology boils down to a single, self-destructive motivation—an unwavering commitment to personal accountability? (Extra bitter irony: He’s a builder who’s demolishing what he’s built!) Knight even denies the actor any subtext to play, instead forcing him to spew defensive vitriol at a silent, invisible backseat driver, the father whose mistakes shaped the weary protagonist. Admirable as it is to see Hardy challenge himself with a one-man, one-car show, he’s picked the wrong vehicle. Compared to the impossible limitations of Locke, delivering lines through a metallic muzzle must have been a cakewalk.