In Steven Knight's drama Locke, a man named Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) leaves a construction site, gets in his BMW and drives into the night. He sets his mobile phone into the hands-free console, and makes and takes calls throughout the journey.
It's clear from his first calls that he is not going home as previously planned, but instead to London for an unexpected personal reason. Also, he will not be at his job the next morning to supervise the critical pouring of a concrete foundation, and the necessary tasks preceding this operation must be delegated en route.
Locke unfolds in real time during the drive from Birmingham to London, and only Hardy appears in the film. Yes, it is a gimmick — a one-man show set in the tiny space of a car seat — but it works. It's a character study that doesn't need anything more than a proficient actor to sell it.
Oh, and perhaps a heavily underlined ongoing metaphor about concrete and its role in providing a secure foundation. "You make one mistake and the whole world comes crashing down around you," Locke explains. As in concrete, so in life.
But despite its highly constrained setting, Knight finds a surprising amount of space around Locke. There are the disembodied voices with whom he speaks, who color in Locke's personal and professional life while revealing a bit about themselves: the tentative voice of his young son who knows something is wrong, or the breezy attitude with which one of his underlings normally approaches his work.
Knight also keeps his camera very fluid, capturing Locke from several angles and in mirrors, and returning to totems of the outside world: the cell-phone console, and the familiar but indistinct scenes of a nighttime highway (cars, signs, lights, barely glimpsed landmarks whizzing by). Even the oft-shot GPS screen functions as a visual metaphor, its two parallel lines of motorway converging into darkness with no depicted destination.
Between juggling personal and professional calls, Locke also argues out loud with his dead father, whom he imagines sitting in the back seat. All these conversations are illuminating, both to advance the narrative and reveal the man. But some of the film's most dramatic moments simply feature Locke driving in silence, disconnected from the outside world with its comforting tasks, feints and distractions. He is simply alone, with his failings laid bare, and Hardy makes it chilling.
If I had to provide an example of "a dull way to spend 90 minutes," driving down the M1 at night with a troubled concrete engineer would certainly qualify. But Locke and Tom Hardy have proven me wrong.