Watching Tom Hardy embark on a one-man, real-time road trip shouldn't be as riveting as it is.

7 May 2014 - 2:58 PM  UPDATED 24 Feb 2015 - 10:27 AM

By Dana Stevens

Locke screens In Competition at the 2014 Sydney Film Festival.
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NEW YORK — A man named Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) leaves a construction site as night falls and gets into his car. Pulling out onto the highway, he takes a call on the car's hands-free phone system, speaking in a soft, measured Welsh accent. (Hardy has said he based the character's musical cadences and trilling R's on the voice of Richard Burton.) As he continues to drive, Locke makes another call, then takes another, his voice getting progressively less soothing as, we begin to realize, his personal and professional life are crumbling around him.

"If the traffic is OK, I should be there in an hour and a half," Locke assures one of his many unseen conversation partners, and the movie — written and directed by Steven Knight (who wrote the scripts for David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises" and Stephen Frears' "Dirty Pretty Things") — makes good on that promise, clocking in at 85 minutes of real time during which the camera never strays from Locke's car, and rarely from Hardy's face. On paper, it sounds like a doomed idea — conceivable as a one-man stage show maybe, but surely claustrophobic and inert on film. But somehow, miraculously, Knight and Hardy turn that car into the only place you want to be for every one of those minutes.

The calls Locke fields and returns over the course of his white-knuckled drive come from four main sources, all of whom we experience only as off-screen voices. There's his boss Gareth (Ben Daniels) — identified in the caller ID system as "Bastard" — who's incensed that Locke, an engineer heading up a huge construction project that's due to start laying foundation in the morning, has suddenly and inexplicably gone AWOL. There's Donal (Andrew Scott), a less-experienced underling who will now have to take Locke's place at the next morning's "pour" of the 55-story building's concrete foundation — and whose habit of overindulging in hard cider may be endangering the pour's safety. There's Locke's wife (Ruth Wilson) and two teen-age sons — identified collectively on the caller ID as "Home" — who can't understand why this soccer-mad family man hasn't returned home to watch a big match with his boys. And there's Bethan (Olivia Colman), a needy, frightened-sounding woman who, we soon gather, is in a London hospital about to have a baby she conceived with Locke in a one-night stand.

"On paper, it sounds like a doomed idea"

As these two inexorable events approach — the birth of the child, the pouring of the concrete — Locke drives on, toward the one and away from the other, attempting with mounting anxiety to manage every contingency on the phone. He doesn't love the woman who's having his child — he barely knows her — but he knows it's the right thing to be there, even though it may be placing his marriage in jeopardy. (In a device that sounds corny but plays with wrenching effectiveness, he intermittently debates the morality of this decision with the ghost of his long-dead father, represented by the rearview mirror.)

If you think of Tom Hardy — last seen as the masked villain Bane in "The Dark Knight Rises" — primarily as a tough and impassive action star, Locke will reveal to you the error of your ways. Hardy's nimble, precise, beautifully modulated performance turns what could have felt like a stagy stunt into an elegant vocal and facial ballet. As each new call comes in, we can see Locke struggling to maintain the appearance of control as he weighs the variables: How much will he reveal to whom, and in what order? What steps need to be taken to ward off disaster? What, in each situation and relationship, is the right thing to do?

Though it's structured around a series of phone conversations in a tightly enclosed space, Locke feels kinetic and suspenseful, not stilted or talky. Knight's camera (wielded by Haris Zambarloukos) sometimes strays from his lead actor's handsome bearded face to linger on the headlights of passing cars, rendered as shimmering oval shapes reflecting off Locke's windshield. The ambient score by Dickon Hinchliffe adds to the mood of dreamy near-abstraction. Locke reduces the existential road movie to its barest essence: a man in a car alone, waging a noble if hopeless battle against the exigencies of biology, concrete and time. That the whole thing holds together is as unlikely a miracle as the construction of a skyscraper.

(c) 2014, Slate