Steven Knight’s one-character film sounds like a gimmick, but for those who enjoy offbeat movie experiences, who can watch a cinematic car ride and not automatically expect a chase scene, this is a brainier kind of road trip — a night road leading into human truths. The idea is simple: A man named Locke gets into his car somewhere about 90 minutes outside London, starts his motor, turns on his Bluetooth, and has a series of life-changing phone conversations in the time it takes him to reach the hospital where a child he has fathered is due to be born.
Locke is played by Tom Hardy, a great actor who seems to be waiting forever to become a star. Though he’s brilliant in this film, playing a solid man whose seams are privately unraveling, this isn’t likely the vehicle (sorry: couldn’t resist) the kids will flock to see. It’s a tough sell when the best part of a performance is in the actor’s eyes, which is pretty much the only body part he gets to use. But the sudden changes in his posture are brilliant, too. He’s steadily brash on the phone; as Locke, he believes no matter how bad things are — and he visits the very worst — anything can be fixed by a true heart and steady will. In the meantime, alone, he plays out his own anxieties against an almost palpable memory, a ghost in the rearview mirror.
Every part of the car is used, and the cinematography is subtly gorgeous, even considering the limitations. Hardy sits inside the car for 85 minutes, but the camera frequently cuts around him to all the nightscape’s desolate glories; glass reflections, double exposures, and fuzzy art shots not only break up tedium but also lend nervous energy to the fateful ride. We’re along for Locke’s scary building life situations, but by the time the films winds toward its terminus, we become aware that the movie is about that dark machinery surrounding everybody.