How much can you take away and still have a movie? Steven Knight's Locke is an experiment in whittling down contemporary screen storytelling to its irreducible essentials, which isn't quite the same thing as being an "experimental" film, despite the ravishing early reviews from England. It shows us just one actor, on one set, and he never so much as stands up. A sheen of CGI glosses most moments, often dazzlingly so. And it remains, stubbornly, about the only thing that most movies tend to be about anymore: a man in motion, doing stuff, maybe redeeming himself, everyone else in his life — especially the women — problems to be dealt with rather than people for us to get to know. His wife? His kid? The woman he got pregnant nine months before? All just voices nattering at him from his dashboard.
So, yes, this is the movie where Tom Hardy drives for ninety minutes. It's engaging despite a lack of cheap-jack suspense — there are no chases, no bad guys, no danger, no other specific cars, even — and although we're never taken far beyond the hero's windshield, it's still very much a movie rather than some stagebound theater piece. The story, about a man trying to prepare a construction site for a high-pressure concrete pour as he races across England to attend the birth of his son by a one-night stand, is just sharp enough. But what director Knight excels at is continually inventive framing and composition, at suggesting, through layers of window and reflected traffic, the mental state of Locke, the hero. His driving is smooth, his handling of million-dollar workplace complications calm and effective, but when revealing to his wife just where he's headed, the silences gape, and Knight allows the head- and taillights of the cars around Locke's to slide from focus, to go wafer-flat, to abstract into something like red and white guitar picks. It's a gorgeous space-out each of the many times it happens.
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As the imperturbable Locke, Hardy makes a familiar character — the supremely competent workaholic — credible and compelling, if never quite fresh. He purrs instructions to panicked bosses and subordinates, walking them through all the steps required to set up the next morning's one-chance concrete laying. Then, in the same practical tones, and with significantly less success, he purrs instructions to the pregnant woman, whom he barely knows, and to his wife, who is realizing that she only barely knows him. (His kid jabbers excitedly about a football match, a welcome distraction from the work and love troubles and the source of Locke's one shock effect, a doozy.) Some of the specifics prove arresting, but there remains something dispiriting about yet another Type A learning on the screen that maybe he should take more time for family, all while treating us to the pleasure of watching him coolly triumph at all his Type A biz. How about whittling down a little more of the usual stuff next time, too?