Director: Steven Knight
Writer: Steven Knight
Stars (or should that be 'Star'?): Tom Hardy
I have always been mesmerised by films shot in real time. Hitchcock’s Rope is one of the most suspenseful films I have ever seen, and it’s that real time unravelling that helps it achieve that status. The frenetic Run Lola Run moves at a pace that forbids boredom from settling in. Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy proves you can create magic with little resources except two characters and a script brimming with truth. My obsession with films shot in real time overlaps with my fascination for films featuring a handful of characters, or films that take place in one location. Steven Knight’s Locke, which screened as part of the Official Competition at the 2014 Sydney Film Festival, is a film I should like. It is shot in real time, almost entirely in a car. We only see the face of one character. Unfortunately, these elements do not mask the film’s hesitation to—pardon the pun—put its foot on the accelerator.
Tom Hardy stars as Ivan Locke, a successful construction manager who is happily married with children. On the night before one of the biggest professional challenges of his life, Locke receives a phone call that compels him to drive from Birmingham to London. I will not reveal who the caller is, but this conversation triggers a chain reaction of events that would induce road rage in the most cautious of drivers. Locke’s only companions are the voices that come through his speakerphone. These are the only plot details I will divulge. But, let’s face it, it’s not as though I am omitting a great deal.
Locke is not a bad film. I would say it is good, but it certainly will not be lingering in my mind when the Festival finishes up. I feel as though it suffers from a case of identity crisis, and, no...I don’t just say that because of Tom Hardy’s forced Welsh accent. Is the film a drama? In one sense: yes. There are dramatic revelations. But I didn’t really feel the drama. It didn’t hit me on a gut level. Others have described it as a thriller. I was actually expecting a thriller going into the film, along the lines of Buried (2010) or Duel (1971). I soon realised this film was not intent on sending a chill down my spine. So, if Locke is not explicitly a drama or a thriller, then what is it? I think of it as an experiment, first and foremost. This is an example of cinema as personal challenge. Knight wrote the script in ten days, and shooting took place over a mere eight days. His execution illustrates that he wanted to make a truly unique film. However, I feel that he got carried away with pushing the creative boundaries and forgot to polish the narrative. Other than some vague comment on the consequences of neglectful parenting, I cannot work out what he is trying to say with this film. Form seems divorced from meaning. I am struggling to deduce any significance from the stylistic choice to shoot the entire film (save for a brief opening scene) inside a car. The confined, vehicular setting feels like a gimmick because it does not complement the story. If it turns out the car is a metaphor for Locke taking control of his life, then I am really disappointed.
The ambiguous ending may be a hit with some viewers, but I feel it detracts from everything that went before. The loose ends are too glaring for our imaginations to engulf. It would be effective if we could put faces to the voices Locke was conversing with, but that doesn’t happen, so it feels as though our everyman protagonist is returning to the London hotel room where the film’s voice actors congregated to perform their lines over the phone. It does not feel like he is driving towards another character.
So far, I have detailed the film’s weaknesses, but the film is not without merit. Yes, there are a few flat spots in the narrative that are especially concerning in an 85-minute film where every moment should be essential. But, for the most part, the screenplay is tight. Knight made me care for the characters—even the faceless ones—without embroiling them in grand set pieces. He has enough faith in his dialogue to avoid convoluted and unnecessary inciting incidents. However, I won’t lie that part of me was hoping for things to play out like Scorsese’s After Hours. Producer Guy Heeley confirmed that all the phone calls in the film were genuine conversations. Nothing was pre-recorded. It’s a small detail like this that separates the good filmmakers from the bad ones. Also deserving of praise is the cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos. The reflection and refraction of vibrant lights helps to break the monotony of one man driving his car for almost an hour-and-a-half. Through his camerawork, Zambarloukos hoped to simulate the aesthetics of a spaceship. Maybe that explains why the film’s intention is still so alien to me.