If I were present in the room when writer/director Steven Knight first sat down with a studio executive to talk about financing Locke, I like to imagine it would have been one of those wickedly entertaining fly on the wall moments. Perhaps it went something like this…
INT. HOLLYWOOD STUDIO EXECUTIVE OFFICE — DAY
This scene takes place in a Hollywood executive’s office. It transpires in a manner characteristic of old school studio system movie pitches, like a moment from Robert Altman’s The Player (1992) or a chapter from the biography of drug-addled mogul Don Simpson.
Knight, an unkempt writer in crinkled clothes, is determined to make his mark as a daring outside-the-box artiste and tries to sell his idea for an ambitious film called Locke to an arrogant seen-it-all-before executive. The exec keeps him waiting 45 minutes. Just when Knight decides he’s been stiffed and gets up to leave, the executive emerges from a private bathroom wiping his nose.
When the writer musters the courage to begin his pitch, it goes like this: “I want to make a film that puts a fresh twist on single setting dramas. I want to make a self-contained experiential feature about an emotionally conflicted businessman who drives his car. The film uses his geographic journey as a metaphor for the tumultuous time he’s going through.”
Knight observes the executive’s head jolt back, his eyes instinctively roll, his face turn into the look of something badly violated. The pitch has got off to a bad start. The executive’s expression suggests he regrets not shelling out for office improvements — say, installing a button-activated trap door to a secret alligator pit directly below his guest’s seat.
The executive’s mind is obviously already wandering — to white powder, blondes, fast cars, the new jacuzzi being installed on the weekend — so Knight pulls out his trump card, figuring it’s best to get it all on the table while there’s still somebody at least half listening.
“Also, Tom Hardy loves my script and he’s agreed to star in it.”
The executive’s face lights up. If eyes could speak, they’d say “now we’re talking.”
“So it’s Bane behind the wheel? I like it. I like it a lot. Hardy’s drivin’ around, foot to the pedal, mindin’ his own business. I can see the poster now. He’s sitting back, one hand on the wheel. He’s in a tiny singlet and those big bulky muscles are bulgin’ out and comin right at ya. Good for photoshoots. Good for the trades.”
“No, he’s in a suit. It’s important he looks professional.”
“Right, a suit. And that suit gets torn and his tie completely rearranged when Hardy stops to deal with junkies and riff-raff and beatniks. How many fights does he get into?”
“Physically, none. But he talks a lot on his car phone and some of the conversations he has are quite tense.”
“Talking on the phone? I guess that’ll work in between all the car chases, if we keep it to a minimum.”
“There’s no car chases.”
“No car chases? Where does Bane drive to?”
“The character’s name is Ivan Locke. Locke just drives down the freeway.”
“What happens when he arrives at his destination?”
“He doesn’t arrive at his destination.”
“So this guy’s some freaky gym junkie Godot type, just cruising around and never arriving anywhere?”
“He’s not a gym junkie, he’s a normal person. A company man who separates his professional and personal lives until the one time they collide in emotionally catastrophic ways.”
“Who are the co-stars?”
“There aren’t any.”
“No, I mean, who are the actors in the film that aren’t Tom Hardy?”
“There aren’t any.”
And, indeed, there aren’t any. If the hulking Hardy had spent his career flexing muscles through meathead roles, this film — which has no special effects, no people to strong arm, no scenery to chew, no Batman to fight, no guns to fire — would probably have signalled his breakthrough “artistic” turning point.
But Hardy has already pumped out several strong performances, from his maniacally good part in Branson (2009) to his maniacally good part in The Dark Knight Rises (2012) to his good, and only partly maniacal, part in Lawless (2012).
Just as Ryan Reynolds gave “lying down on the job” new meaning in Rodrigo Cortés’ Buried (2010), spending the entire running time in a coffin, Hardy is the one and only star in Knight’s cinematic shot gun: a film in which he never leaves his automobile and the audience never leave the character.
Locke is a construction manager who, on the eve of the cement pour for the biggest building of his career, decides to up and leave. His impetus is the impending birth of his baby. His, but not his wife’s; the baby will be a lovechild from a one-time fling. Due to issues concerning his own father, Locke is determined to be present when the child is born. Phone calls to his wife, his pregnant lover, his son and an assortment of colleagues flow thick and fast.
I would love to have been present in the room when Knight first sat down with a studio executive or a producer to talk about financing Locke and take pleasure in guessing how the scene rolled, thus the contrived dialogue exchange above. Maybe the pitch went off without a hitch; maybe the executive leaped towards the dotted line.
Whichever way the cookie crumbled, Locke got over the line without, it seems, any compromises. It is impressively unconventional: not just a film with a bold concept but a film that shrewdly sustains dramatic intrigue over the course of a running time in which, strictly speaking, very little happens.
Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos deftly blends images of Locke’s car with luminous photography of the road and the headlights of other vehicles, visually implying his journey — geographic or otherwise — is one in a sea of other experiences. Knight’s screenplay weaves together streams of cross-cutting dialogue, providing a creeping sense those thin walls of the car are gradually closing in. And at the heart of it there is Hardy, whose performance is both deeply humane and oddly robotic: a man with a single purpose — get to that destination — pursued relentlessly.