Many movies are the sum of their characters. But what if you only have the one? And what if you go even further, like Tom Hardy in Steven Knight’s new film Locke, and confine them to a single space? Aspects such as plot and motivation lose their conventional bearings; it’s very much up to the sole on-screen character, whether it be Hardy in Locke, Ryan Reynolds in Buried, or James Franco in 127 Hours – they all bear the burden of keeping the audience entertained, giving kinesis to their static predicaments. But there’s one factor that’s nearly always neglected with not just these movies, but the vast majority: there are always two characters on screen. The actor, and the landscape.
In Locke, Tom Hardy plays the eponymous Welshman Ivan Locke, a foreman who blows off both his job and his family to tackle with a life-altering consequence of an old mistake, with nearly the whole of the picture playing inside the confines of his car. Plot points aside, half of the movie seems to focus on Ivan’s face as he grapples with the ramifications of his actions, whether it be on the phone to his wife and children, boss and colleague, or arguing with his dad – an unseen apparition of his conflicted mind – sitting in the back seat. But the other half, when the camera isn’t focusing on its protagonist / antagonist, is spent looking out rather than in. The world outside the drizzly windows of Locke’s motor is the M6, drab motorways piling on top of one another, but given a shimmering, almost ethereal beauty in the yellow-tinted night. Used as cut-aways from the infinite complexity of emotions on Hardy’s face, a calming ebb to Ivan’s vehement flow, these shots could be mistaken for Knight clamouring for visual variety in what he may have feared a one-note film. But in constantly reminding us of a larger sphere of existence outside Locke’s car, his entire world for eighty-five minutes, Knight reveals something more important.
If the claim is to be made that both actor and environment are characters in films like Locke, then the factor that characters change through a narrative must also be the same for both. Locke’s potential road to a resolution is the stuff of inner evolution; when he reaches B, he isn’t quite the same man who started out at A. But what of the landscape? The motorway, the night, both unchanged – unsurprisingly. At the end of Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon, the rain has stopped at the movie’s conclusion; at the end of A Serious Man, a tornado threatens to plunge the world into chaos. But there is no sunrise to usher in the next chapter in Locke’s life, no skyline of London to give a definite assumption to us that he’s made his destination. The motorway is still grey and yellow, the night still black. In leaving Locke in very much the same way we entered it, we’re left with the smallest inkling of doubt – and perhaps that’s Knight’s point. No matter how much you can change inwardly, the rest of the world is just as you left it. The lack of any obvious pathetic fallacy in the film removes it from the fancy of emotional manipulation; after all, we’re getting a tour de force from Hardy that’s essentially the definition of ‘emotional’. The landscape is a silent ghost, omnipresent yet ineffectual. If we continue regarding this movie as a two-character piece, Locke is the angry, gabby one; the motorway by night is the one of few words, preferring to listen.
Of course, it’s perfectly valid to reject such a claim. But Locke is, regardless, a work of contrasting sides; imagine a film where Ivan is driving through a bustling metropolis, or by the sea, or through a forest road – locations that are constantly undergoing change. In confining the turbulent, ever-changing emotional space of Ivan’s car to a barren land of endless lights and roads, the movie’s entire dynamic is locked in place, and works brilliantly for it. Locke’s world is always moving through the dread static – toward what exactly he’s not always sure of. Knight has delivered an exciting, experimental piece of British cinema, with Hardy’s lead role a potentially career-defining performance for him – and the main support, the M6, doesn’t do a bad job either.