This film has been getting a lot of attention as a daring, innovative experiment, but it’s really just a variation on a genre that goes back decades. I call it “techno-stunt” because it tells a story involving many people by having the camera stay on a single character for almost the entire running time. Here director-writer Steven Knight (writer, “Eastern Promises”) makes clever use of modern technology to get us involved in the lives of a number of characters who are heard, but never seen. The only character we do see, Locke, played by Tom Hardy in a virtuoso performance, is only shown behind the wheel of his car as he talks via speaker phone to the other characters.
This makes it a kind of radio play. Its film precursors include a Barbara Stanwyck vehicle, “Sorry, Wrong Number”, which intersperses her telephone monologue with flashbacks. Jean Cocteau’s “The Human Voice”, both as play and film, is a monologue of a woman talking on the phone to her lover, who is leaving her to marry a younger woman. Another telephone monologue is a TV film, “Eddie”, for which Mickey Rooney won an Emmy for playing a playing a gambler desperately making calls to raise money before thugs come to collect a gambling debt.
Knight modernizes the format by having his hero talk on speaker phone while driving his car, which allows us to hear the person on the other end. The story is perfectly suited to this treatment. The film starts with Locke, a building contractor in Birmingham, England, driving home to his family. He is nervous because he is expecting a delivery of concrete that is crucial to his building’s completion. But he gets an unexpected call that turns his life around. Locke finds himself confronted with a moral challenge that threatens to destroy his marriage and career. The film shows how he meets that challenge.
Essentially, this is a soap opera, but very well done. What places it at a somewhat higher level is that the real conflict is within Locke himself. He thinks of himself as a man of integrity, and the fact that his single “lapse” could ruin his life is especially painful. I’m sure that some men watching the film would think Locke is foolish to do what he does, and that his “sacrifice” is really just a guilt trip triggered by an exaggerated sense of self-importance. They would have a point. Does he really need to protect the woman giving birth to his child, or is he simply too vain to admit that things may work out anyway? Is it worth the break-up of his marriage, or the separation from his two young sons? And, with regard to the business deal, is it worth the risk of destroying the most important project of his career?
Knight is able to hold us in a tight grip until his satisfying conclusion, but he can’t hide the contrivances of the story. While Locke is convincingly driven by the need to live responsibly – which is explained by his own father’s abandoning him as a child – the other characters, who, after all, are only disembodied voices, seem to be figures in a morality play, not real people. This reduces the film’s impact considerably. Locke is presented as such a controlling person, one who is used to getting his own way, that all obstacles, whether his wife’s rage over his adultery, or locating employees who are not too drunk to follow his instructions, are overcome too easily. The film’s final image, and sound, is craftily calculated to choke us up (it does), but it really hasn’t been earned.
Having said that, I must note the exception, the one genuinely touching moment in the film. It occurs near the end, when Locke is approaching his destination and stops answering his calls. He hears a voice mail left by his younger son, who describes in detail the winning goal in the football championship that Locke had promised to watch with his sons. It is a long, excited description, and you can sense the boy’s disappointment over his father’s absence. With only the look in his eyes as he hears this, Hardy is able to fully convey the depth of his pain.