Tom Hardy plays Ivan Locke, who steps from the construction site where he works into his BMW in the late evening as the film begins. This is the only time we will see Locke outside of his car for the duration of the film, and it is the only time we will see him in the same frame as another human face. Locke is one of those films that wrings a literary conceit as dry as it will allow: It doesn’t take long before the audience cottons on to the fact that this film will end before Locke reaches London, and there will be no reprieve from the eight or so different angles from which we’ll view his face behind the steering wheel. The only other voices we hear are disembodied, played through the speaker of his car’s Bluetooth. Locke is alone.

The journey is certainly a momentous one. The following morning, Locke is scheduled to supervise “the largest concrete pour in Europe,” and he’s deliberately choosing to abscond. Not only that, but he will have to guide, by telephone during this car journey, an inebriated subordinate who works on-site to ensure that the building—his building, he proudly maintains—gets the sure foundation the higher-ups expected him to deliver. As Locke knows all too well, given the project’s significance, the very fact that he is no longer on-site himself is grounds for instantaneous termination.

Which brings us to the reason for his unexpected departure. Seven months earlier, while away on business, Locke’s indiscretions resulted in the pregnancy of a “fragile” older woman named Bethan, played by Olivia Colman. Bethan is now giving birth, with some complications, to Locke’s child. And a man like Locke, who grew up scarred by his own fatherlessness in youth, is determined to be present for the newborn, despite his unaffectionate connection to Bethan.

For any of his past misdeeds, Locke is resolute about trying to do the right thing. For an hour and a half, we sit with him as he does his best by his conscience. A man with fifteen solid, loving years of marriage and an inestimable reputation as a structural engineer hangs in the balance. By the morning, he must have squared away his infidelity, his departure from the site, and his new family.

Throughout it all, the camera position places us so that we sit beside him in the car and in front of the windshield, but never as passengers in the backseat—we are with him in this, as opposed to being along for the ride. And it can be hard to root against Locke. Instead of Hardy’s impressive physicality (for more of that, see my review of his performance in Bronson), Locke is remarkable for his dignified composure and middle-range temperament. His Welsh lilt is by no means thick, but it’s sufficiently noticeable to convey a soothing lyricism and calmness when the voices at the other end of the telephone line veer toward desperation and aggression. And when, in the final act, Locke becomes more emotive, his earlier restraint buys him an immense sympathy.

His character is, nonetheless, equivocal. His resolute honesty can be downright hurtful. For example, in a moment of fear for the procedure she may have to endure alone, Bethan implores him to tell her that he loves her. He matter-of-factly reminds her that he barely knows her. Locke is evidently grappling with his conscience, and struggling to learn how to adjust to the new life he’s unwillingly fashioned for himself.

Despite being confined to the car for the duration of the film, the ambience is never claustrophobic or tense. Instead, it ranges from the melancholic to the frustrated to the wistful. Most notably, the pacing is quite superb: at no point was it sluggish or boring. Testament to Hardy’s splendid talent, Locke turned out to make the drive along the M40 far more impressive and compelling than I thought possible.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Johann Koehler

Johann Koehler is a doctoral student in the School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. He tweets at @KoehlerJA.