A man listens to the voices in his head. The man is Ivan Locke, on the run, from his life, toward his life. He is in a car. It is night. He drives away from the past toward an uncertain future. Past and future alike speak to him on the phone: voices as phantasms that he soothingly talks down in a gentle Welsh accent.
Writer-director Steven Knight’s second feature, the engulfing, glorious, gorgeous tour de force, “Locke,” demarcates one man’s pungent unwinding of notions of himself across a couple of dark hours, or more precisely, fewer than ninety fateful minutes. Coursing south on the M1 artery from Birmingham toward London, putting family and a multi-decamillion-pound concrete pour in his rearview mirror, Ivan Locke talks, Ivan Locke listens. Ivan Locke is a man of concrete who, come this one day, this one night, has cracked. The pressures on him are universal. Tom Hardy is in the driver’s seat, although the actors who play his wife, his boys, his boss, his conspirators, the lover he knew for only a night—Olivia Colman, Ruth Wilson, Andrew Scott, Tom Holland, Bill Milner—provide urgent support.
As voices punch at him in succession and repetition, perspective blurs and light sources eddy red, white, blue, yellow, guttering like phosphorescent tapers, streaks and flurries of headlamps, tail lights, red and white light elongating from facing directions. Antiquated Panavision lenses add to the bloom and anamorphic splay of light sources in every shot. It’s light as inchoate emotion, light as insensate commentary, a sure, persistent mood. Resemblances to the light show of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Michael Chapman’s “Taxi Driver” Manhattan, as well as a panoply of experimental filmmakers, like Jordan Belson, ought be amply catalogued. Light plays over the BMW, kaleidoscopic glimmers, a neon tapestry of urban night world that scans across his features as he traverses the motorway, the play of light off other vehicles silently sizzling, relentlessly simmering surfaces infecting his calm. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos’ fondness for textures, seen in films like “Enduring Love,” nests in Locke’s nubby fisherman’s-style sweater, one element in the confines of the car that turn the space cannily domestic. As Locke grows more distressed, that look provides a vital visual-emotional corollary to Michael Mann’s slashing action painting of ineffectual masculinity’s pageantry.
But “Locke” is more than mere sensation. Its great beauty first swims in light, then lies in language, and finally rests in the beating heart of its protagonist. “Locke”’s dialogue rises to the punchy, pounding, yet ethereal reaches of the spoken beauty of Abraham Polonsky’s “Body & Soul” and “Force Of Evil.” Why does Locke do what he does? A rare, soulful passage amid his patient verbal negotiation with life itself: “You do it for the piece of sky we are stealing with our building. You do it for the air that will be displaced. And most of all you do it for the fucking concrete, because it is delicate as blood.” And what danger does Locke live with? “You make one mistake, one little fucking mistake, and the whole world comes crashing down around you.” That is the film, that is his life.
Knight’s aware of the voices-in-the-head aspect, the fracturing of contemporary consciousness. Nowadays, he tells me, “I think it must be a real gift for people who do talk to themselves, because now everyone assumes they’re just talking on an earpiece. He’s a busy businessman!”
When I first saw the film at Sundance, lyrics from David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” came to mind, “Here I am, sitting in a tin can, far above the world.” “I didn’t think of that specific song,” Knight says, “It was more, if you notice on the windscreen, there’s [the letters] RNLI, which is the ‘Royal Navy Lifeboat Institute,’ and what we wanted was to almost feel like he’s in a boat that’s in a storm. And he could sink at any moment. And he’s gotta keep going. That was one thing, to make it feel like a ship at sea.”
Isn’t it amazing how much simpler you make a thing, the more it reverberates? “I know. I know. Thank god! Touch wood!” Knight says, laughing, rapping on the hotel room’s coffee table. “That’s what’s happened instead of, which I was really dreading, people saying, ‘Oh, this is a novel way to do this!’” Patronizing, like “It’s a fuckin’ stunt!”? “Yeah. ‘It’s a gimmick.’ The least likely people have become emotional about it. It’s great.”
Plus, the film is one big continuity error. “Yeah, exactly. There is no continuity! That’s the thing, when you make a film, there are so many reasons to not do the obvious thing, but doing the obvious thing works! The idea was that that piece of dialogue has to be done on the same piece of motorway, ’cause people will notice. Well, first of all, the sort of people who would notice, who cares? And they won’t notice anyway! There was no worry then. It is like outer space. Remember that film ‘Betty Blue?’ She puts some water on the stove, and leaves it there for a while. I just remember thinking, I don’t know why, ‘That’s gonna boil over!’”
Thelma Schoonmaker tells a story about the year she cut “Goodfellas,” and lost the Oscar to “Dances With Wolves,” and the winning editor said he wanted to ask her about a continuity error, and she said, “You can pick out just one?” Continuity errors are just hobgoblins, so long as you’re answering, what is the character, what is the emotion, are we cutting on color and emotion? “Right. It’s just different,” Knight agrees. “I had a really interesting conversation about a project with Johnnie To, the Chinese director, and he was suggesting something that was a massive coincidence, it was something in the story that was a gigantic coincidence, and through a translator, I was saying, that’s a bit strange that that would happen, and he says: ‘It’s a film.’ He said the Chinese audience won’t give a damn about that, they know it’s a film. Almost like, do you not understand? You can do what you want!”
“Locke” opens Friday, May 2 at River East, Landmark Century and Century Evanston. The trailer is below.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.