Back in 2002, Joel Schumacher and Colin Farrell captured a startling mix of old school terror with a new sensibility in the mainstream-friendly Phone Booth. Farrell’s smooth-talking protagonist was a stereotypically sleazy operator, with a loving wife and a would-be woman on the side, who crossed paths with an anonymous trickster offering him the chance to make things right — at a cost. The unseen speaker (Kiefer Sutherland) on the other end of that line was similar to Jigsaw (Tobin Bell), the master manipulator from the Saw franchise who forces his subjects to face gruesomely high consequences.
Steven Knight, Oscar-nominated screenwriter (and director) of Dirty Pretty Things, updates the means of communication in his new feature, Locke, but also strips the premise down to the core — to truly shocking effect. Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is an archetype, a highly principled literary creation in an age that has let such philosophical notions fall by the wayside. Locke lives in a universe diametrically opposed to Farrell’s flashy phony, but they reflect an image back to the audience of ourselves — trapped and stranded by communication that separates us from others, ourselves and any sense of responsibility for our actions.
Locke leaves work late, kicks off his construction boots and doffs his protective outer gear, slides behind the wheel of his luxury BMW and sets off, we assume, for a quiet night at home. Quickly, though, the first of what will become an ongoing series of communications ensues and we realize Locke is not heading home.
This dedicated, dependable man, this efficient construction manager about to oversee the largest non-military concrete pour (for a towering skyscraper) in British history, is about to detonate his structured and secure life and erect something that remains to be seen as the night unfolds.
All at once, he is juggling personal and professional crises that, while seemingly impossible to comprehend (at least to those who know this otherwise practical man), exist solely because of Locke’s rigid brand of practicality and logic. Locke is driven to not let anyone down. We hear his determination rise up to each challenge that presents itself.
He’s driving to London for the arrival of his newborn child, an offspring conceived during a one-night stand with Bethan, a fragile woman (Olivia Colman) who was his assistant on a job less than a year ago. He had been away from his happy home for too long and the woman was lonely and sad, even in the midst of a celebration for a job well done. They drank too much and Locke sought to ease her sadness for a moment. Seven months later, he’s on the phone with her, assuring her that he is on his way. He must be there — less for her, a woman he refuses to lie to (she tells him often that she loves him, but he cannot offer the empty words that might soothe her as her labor takes a dark turn).
We hear his conversations with his wife (Ruth Wilson) and sons, waiting for his arrival home to eat, drink and watch a pivotal soccer match together. We hear the love and hurt as he seeks to shield his sons from the truth and later the pain and realization in his wife’s voice as she recognizes a cold hard truth about Locke (and their relationship).
On the professional end, Locke, from his remote driver’s seat, claims responsibility for his looming absence the following morning by taking complete control over all the details, even once his bosses have snatched the project from him and terminated him. None of that matters to Locke, though; he has all of the key documentation and a dependable underling who provides assistance while placing his own position at risk.
Locke sets himself up as the final arbiter of right and wrong, and it can certainly be argued that principle compels him, but is that enough in a complex situation? Is it right to destroy one home to build another, especially if the one being built is on a faulty foundation? As problems spiral from the personal into the professional realm, is it truly his responsibility to seize complete control away from management? What makes him the lone preserver of architectural integrity?
Knight, with far more subtlety and precision than Schumacher’s Phone Booth, creates a philosophical dialogue rooted in fundamental relationships that engages our practical natures and our very souls, thanks to an internally focused performance from Hardy that rides through the dirty, pretty heart of darkness into dawning self-awareness. (Opens at Esquire Theatre) (R) Grade: A