It sounds contrived, and it is. It sounds like a bit of a stunt, and it is that too. It may even sound boring, but that it is not. In fact, whip-smart filmmaking by writer-director Steven Knight and his team combined with Tom Hardy's mesmerizing acting make the micro-budgeted British independent "Locke" more minute-to-minute involving than this year's more costly extravaganzas.
Though a dozen actors are listed in "Locke's" credits, Hardy is the only one who appears on screen in this real-time drama that unfolds inside a moving BMW during the 85 minutes it takes construction foreman Ivan Locke to make a nighttime drive from Birmingham to London.
As played by Hardy (best known as the terrifying Bane in "The Dark Knight Rises"), Locke is not only driving, he is engaged in an almost continuous series of hands-free phone conversations as he desperately attempts to keep the various parts of his well-ordered life from collapsing in a total ruin. This may not sound like the formula for continuous tension, but it is.
Though single-location films are nothing new (Ryan Reynolds in "Buried" is a recent example), "Locke" stands out both for the way filmmaker Knight conceived and executed it and for the kind of hypnotic acting Hardy can be counted on to bring to the table.
Because Hardy had a brief two-week availability to make this film, and half of that went to rehearsals, Knight chose to film the piece all the way through, twice a night, with Hardy in a car mounted on the back of a trailer and the other actors in a hotel conference room making real-time phone calls into the car. Knight instructed the actors, including Hardy, to respond as if they were in a play, i.e. "if something goes wrong, deal with it, as you would on stage."
Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, "Locke's" secret weapon, did a number of things to give veteran editor Justine Wright enough different looks to work with. Shooting with three digital cameras, Zambarloukos changed the lens each time he changed the memory card (every 37 minutes), and he would chose a different angle for each camera every night he shot.
All this careful preparation would have been wasted if "Locke's" story did not involve us, but it does because of Hardy's charisma and Knight's dramatic skill. An all-around screenwriter at home in multiple genres (his credits include "Dirty Pretty Things," "Eastern Promises" and "Amazing Grace"), Knight has craftily created a situation so involving we don't have the leisure to focus on how contrived it is.
As the drive and those phone calls unfold, we become aware that protagonist Locke is facing a trio of linked crises that could well turn his life upside down.
A foreman who is nothing if not conscientious, someone who has built his life around being dependable, Locke is leaving town on the night before what should be the capstone day of his career: overseeing the 218 trucks and hundreds of metric tons of concrete that will constitute the biggest non-military concrete pour in European history.
Locke's insistence that he won't be there ("That is my decision, I have made my decision," he says over and over) infuriates his boss Gareth (Ben Daniels) and terrifies his second-in-command Donal (Andrew Scott), who pleads that he is in no way prepared to take charge of the day's events.
The reason a man who is fanatical about doing the right thing would abandon his post turns out to be deeply personal. Locke is driving to be present at the birth of a baby he is the father of, the result of a one-night stand with Bethan (Olivia Colman), a woman he barely knows whose phone call pleading for his presence set off this chain of events.
If Locke's decision is hard for audiences to understand, at least at first, it is even harder for Katrina (Ruth Wilson), the wife he loves, who expected him home to watch a big soccer game with her and their two sons. She's furious when Locke fills her in, and, as it turns out, the fragile, needy Bethan is causing him problems on the phone as well.
In fact, one of the through-lines of Knight's story is that Locke gets not a hint of understanding but rather a ferocious hard time from every single person he talks to. Crises in each area of his life come at him in waves, new ones arising just as old ones get solved.
It's a good thing, then, that as played by Hardy with a soothing Welsh accent that was his own idea, Locke is a cool-headed pragmatist that few things fluster. While that hardly insures that everything is going to work out, it does mean that our involvement with his predicament is agonizingly total. It takes an actor of undeniable power and quiet conviction to make this happen, and without a performer of Hardy's gifts in the lead, "Locke" would be difficult to imagine.
A final word must be said for cinematographer Zambarloukos and his team. With its constantly shifting lenses and angles, and its brilliant use of reflected ambient light, "Locke" manages to give viewers a compelling variety of ways to look at the same human face in the same moving BMW. This film may only have one location, but we never want to take our eyes off the screen.
MPAA rating: R for language throughout
Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes
Playing: At ArcLight, Hollywood; Landmark, West Los Angeles.