Despite playing a range of characters throughout his 13-year career, it seems like Tom Hardy's more bestial performances are the ones you keep coming back to. Whether it's as a repressed beast (Warriors), a beast on the rise (Layer Cake), or a beast gone wild (The Dark Knight Rises), the men Hardy plays are rarely confused for being passive aggressive. In fact, they often welcome conflict. And his newest film, LOCKE, is like being inside an 85-minute wrestling match that curiously has no victor.
What's even more interesting, Hardy is the only one in the ring. The actor plays the title character in writer/director Steven Knight's (Dirty Pretty Things) tense, single-setting drama about a man experiencing a moral collapse. The thing is, he's fully aware that he's done something wrong and is determined to rub out all resulting repercussions with increasingly frustrating precision. But what he lacks is genuine remorse, actual contrition for a one night affair he had that resulted in a pregnancy that serves as the catalyst for the story.
At the time we meet Ivan, he's speeding down a London highway at 90 mph on his way to the hospital where his new baby is about to be born. He's surprisingly calm, under control, preparing to make a series of difficult phone calls that he knows will all end up with the person on the other side of the phone hating him immensely. But he approaches them all in the exact same manner, presenting them with the problem, the solution and a plan to move forward. First, he calls his colleague Donal (Andrew Scott), a fellow construction worker, and tells him that he won't be coming in to work the next morning--the day of the biggest challenge of their careers. Which then triggers an enraged call from their boss, Gareth (Ben Daniels) aka "Bastard," as it reads on Ivan's caller ID. After enduring both men's wrath, to which he responds with authority yet restrained force, he calls home to confess to his wife, Katrina (Ruth Wilson) and about his affair in the same tone he used with the two previous callers. Despite her utter devastation, he continues to present his proposed resolution in the same professional manner he struggles to maintain with everyone he speaks to this evening. By the time he speaks with Bethan (Olivia Colman), the woman in labor with his child, he is nearly numb with emotion, talking to her solely out of obligation and resenting it.
It's an interesting setup, watching Ivan struggle to maintain control over his emotions even as they threaten to erupt. Which is compounded by the fact that he is confined inside a moving vehicle with no place to freely release what is presumably The Incredible Hulk-like anger. While each of the other characters are wrought with emotion, unique to his effect on their lives, it is only in between these calls--when he is alone in his car to seethe--does he finally react to the disaster that has become his life. But instead of blaming himself for the catastrophic decision he made nine months prior to this night, he faults his predisposition to immorality, passed on to him from his father. In a series of vicious pep talks to himself directed to the empty backseat of his car, he reprimands himself for succumbing to his own fate, for failing as a man and for being a disappointment to others--his wife, sons, colleague, manager.
Hardy is impressive in this internalized portrayal that continues to mount in suspense (and the voice-over cast is particularly compelling), but the film's message seems to get lost somewhere along Ivan's eventful commute. If Knight's aim is to tackle the concept of nature versus nurture, Ivan's monologue transgression isn't enough to convey that. Each time he does it, it comes off more absurd than provocative. A voice-over by Hardy would have been far more effective and believable, especially since he's on the highway shouting at himself in the car. Or perhaps the film challenges the idea of right versus wrong: does one person's bad decision erase all the good things he has done? Can Ivan get a second chance to prove his benevolence with an impartial new life?
None of these theories are well developed in the film. At its best, LOCKE is a performance piece that merely introduces interesting concepts without fleshing out any of them. It's a gripping watch, until its anticlimactic ending that is too underwhelming to even provoke a genuine opinion. But despite its uncertain themes, Hardy's consuming performance is too fascinating to miss.
Rating: B- (*** out of *****)
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LOCKE is in theaters Friday.