It is a good movie, certainly, and it is not writer/director Steven Knight’s fault that we live in an age that appears only to recognize two critical verdicts: awesome or awful. There is less room in the conversation for the good, modest movie.
Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is about to have a horrible, awful, no good, very bad night. Come morning he is supposed to be supervising the largest non-military concrete pour in Europe, but he has to use his car’s phone to explain to his boss why he isn’t going to be there. The rest of the film takes place in the car, as Ivan juggles calls from said boss, a slightly-inebriated co-worker he is trying to walk through troubleshooting the project’s preparation, his wife, his son, and the person awaiting him at his destination. The identity of the latter is probably a spoiler, though it is revealed in the film’s first act and is fairly easy to guess based on the trailer.
The entire shoot takes place in the car, with the exception of a few exterior and aerial shots, and action is limited to speeches over a telephone. Knight’s writing is thick enough to transform a fairly conventional plot into a tense drama that holds our attention. The film invites comparison between the principles guiding Ivan’s construction project and those informing his domestic life, using the pouring of a concrete foundation as both tenor and vehicle in one giant metaphor. And it is certainly refreshing to hear words used with precision at the movies. So much of what passes for scripting these days is really just stage direction moving the protagonist from one explosion to another.
That said, I never quite shook the feeling that Locke would profit more from being read rather than viewed. Just how revolutionary is the gimmick, anyway? There have been other single-location dramas (Lifeboat, Rope, and Rear Window all come to mind) and plenty of films which rely on the spoken word for drama. After thirty minutes or so, I got bored of the low key lighting and the traffic lights coming in and out of focus. Knight does a decent job of varying the angles and shots without being too ostentatious, but other than the moments when Ivan was speaking to (an imaginary) someone in his rear view mirror, I didn’t notice any correlation between the conversations and how they were shot. I didn’t see any meaning in the visual choices other than the need to vary what was on screen.
I also thought the situation a bit contrived. There is an explanation of why Ivan’s drive had to be on this night, but I found it hard to believe that a work project of such magnitude would be entirely dependent on the know-how of one supervisor.
The script does work well as a discussion piece. The essence of drama is consequential decisions, and Ivan makes one that is explained and pursued with impeccable logic. The film’s resolution is a bit more ambiguous. Can Ivan’s logic be sustained? Need it be? Or is it enough that he made this one decision for the reason he did?
The central moral question the film made me grapple with is whether any decisions are so clear cut as to make context irrelevant. Our imperfections and our fallen natures mean not only that we cannot always choose right but that we often have a difficult time enacting honorable decisions in the best possible way. For that reason, I was skeptical of Ivan’s stated motivations, which at times came across as being more about justifying why he had to break the news of what he was doing this way than about why he was doing it in the first place. To some ears, that suspicion may well sound like casuistry, but Noah wasn’t the only protagonist I saw this summer following his own moral compass with no quarter given to how his decisions (or, more precisely, how he chose to pursue those decisions) might affect those around him, some of whom might even share his values if not his application of them. Conversely, though, I’ve long argued that post-Enlightenment Christians have feared fallen emotions (and imagination) too much and fallen reason too little. And if that sounds a little too academic, well, I don’t think Ivan’s last name (and the film’s title) is a coincidence. Are we born with a pre-existing notion of right and wrong, or are we merely the sum total of our individual and collective choices?
That Locke leads me to grapple with such questions is itself an accomplishment, even if ends up being more of a pointer towards interesting ideas rather than a satisfying examination of them.