There are plenty of minimalist films out there. And then there's the tiny sub-genre of the truly, ultra-minimalist films: One character. In one place.
Think "Buried," in which Ryan Reynolds spent 94 minutes stuck in a coffin, with a waning cellphone. Or "All is Lost," in which Robert Redford spent 106 minutes adrift on a stricken sailboat, with waning options.
And now there's "Locke," in which Tom Hardy spends 85 minutes in his car, just driving south on a British motorway, toward London. His life isn't in danger - well, not in the literal sense. And the Bluetooth is working just fine. The only thing waning is, quite simply, his carefully constructed existence. In the course of one car ride, it's all falling apart.
It sounds almost trite to say that a film like this lives or dies on its central performance (other actors appear here, but only by telephone.) Trite, but true. And luckily, Hardy is compelling enough here to drive - forgive the pun - the action.
That's not to say "Locke" will work for everyone. Hardy's performance as an upstanding, tightly controlled family man trying to right a terrible mistake is admirably restrained, in a situation when overacting must have been a constant temptation. But it's precisely this strength of the film, written and directed by Steven Knight, that makes it heavy lifting for the viewer. It demands a lot of patience - especially when it really sinks in that this car, and Hardy's face, will be everything you see. And it demands a willingness to absorb countless details on the fascinating subject of concrete pouring.
Yes, concrete pouring. Did you know the difference between C6 concrete and C5? By the end of this film, you will.
Ivan Locke (Hardy), you see, is a construction foreman, and early the next morning, he's due to supervise a huge project - the concrete pour at the site of a new skyscraper. This is, in fact, the largest concrete pour to happen in Europe, outside of military or nuclear sites, as we keep being reminded in phone calls of escalating desperation with Locke's boss and an underling.
Why are these calls desperate? Because on the eve of the biggest day of his career, Locke has left it all and started driving to London. Nine months earlier, on a business trip, he wound up with a bottle of wine and a lonely woman. Now, she is giving birth, all alone, and though he barely knows her, he feels he has no choice but to join her.
"I'm going to do the right thing," he says, in a line that becomes a mantra.
The dialogue takes place almost entirely in phone calls, and the most effective of these are between Locke and his wife (an excellent Ruth Wilson), who gets the shocking news as she's preparing a family evening watching football on the telly. "Hi love. I got sausages," she tells Locke happily when he first calls.
Soon, she's vomiting in the bathroom. Locke insists this is the only time he's ever transgressed in all their years together. "The difference between never and once is the difference between good and bad," she tells him. The dialogue here feels raw and real.
By contrast, things get unnecessarily maudlin when Locke starts speaking aloud to his dead father. It's as if Knight, who's penned an otherwise excellent screenplay, lost his nerve and felt compelled to add another layer of drama.
Really, it's enough to watch Hardy's Locke, neatly clad in a proper sweater and checked dress shirt, as the enormity of his predicament sinks in. The problem is, doing the right thing by Bethan, the woman about to give birth, means doing the wrong thing to his family and his co-workers. He's always been able to figure everything out. But this time, there may be no answer.
And that motorway exit for London is coming soon.
"Locke," an A24 Films release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America "for language throughout." Running time: 85 minutes. Three stars out of four.