Tom Hardy has made miracles happen on film, whether it’s transmogrifying into the dandy human pit bull Bronson or rescuing The Dark Knight Rises from being entirely unwatchable. But his forte thus far has been in crafting, like Bane, strikingly exaggerated characters. With the film Locke, opening Friday (May 9), the Brit actor was presented with the opposite challenge.
“This is, he said himself, his first straight role where he’s not becoming a monster or a baddie,” says writer-director Steven Knight, calling the Straight from Toronto. “He’s becoming the most ordinary man imaginable. But that also requires the ability to become someone, and that’s what he’s got. And if you’re going to have somebody on-screen for 90 minutes, he’d better be good.”
Rest assured, Hardy is very good. Mesmerizing even, as a man whose entire life seems to unravel as he drives from Birmingham to London in a film that takes place entirely inside his car. With a singsong Welsh accent that the actor cribbed from a friend—“He was someone who Tom believed to be solid,” remarks Knight—Hardy carries the entire film through a pile-up of calamities received through an ever-ringing cellphone.
His character, Ivan Locke, is also on a mission; putting honour before a successful career and family on the very night that he should be overseeing the foundation of an enormous high-rise building. The name is a winking reference to 17th century philosopher John Locke. “Ivan is a supreme rationalist who tries to apply reason to the chaos that’s around him,” says Knight, “and soon realizes that it’s fine for concrete, but it’s not fine for his emotional life.”
Knight was devilishly clever in indulging us with an actor craved by audiences as much as this one. “I don’t think there is an explanation for it,” answers the filmmaker, when asked about Hardy’s magnetism. “I think when Tom’s on-screen with anyone else, people are looking at him. And I don’t think it’s something that you learn. I think it’s something probably that you just have.”
Even more devilishly clever is the film’s airtight setup, which was achieved by plonking Hardy in a BMW and then dragging him around a U.K. ring road 16 times in a row over a two-week shoot. Voice actors including Ruth Wilson (as Locke’s wife) and Andrew Scott (as a beleaguered workmate) were radioed in while everybody performed Knight’s script from top to bottom. Sometimes Knight would suggest a different emotional approach for each character. “And then with the second lot of motivations you could cut between the two, which suggests to me that people can have many motivations, all within the same phone call,” he says.
There were other serendipitous events that made their way into the film, like the way Locke’s car shudders in one particularly dramatic moment. “On different nights at different times, different things would happen,” Knight recalls. “At one point there’s a truck comes into view and it just says on the side: ‘It’s always been…’ and it drives away again. You wouldn’t think of doing that, and you wouldn’t be able to plan it. But it’s just wonderful that what you’re doing is inviting chaos in.”
It all amounts to wildly exciting filmmaking. One wonders, given the buzz surrounding Locke and other stridently unconventional fare like A Field in England and Under the Skin, if the right people are taking any notice.
“I think so!” offers Knight, whose first job as director was the 2013 Jason Statham vehicle, Redemption, and who characterizes his “day job” as “writing conventional films for Hollywood.”
“I think it’s the duty of low-budget filmmakers to break new ground, because you’re not going to get a $100 million budget to do something with one man in a car,” he says. “And you don’t need it… But once it’s been shown that something works, I think what the film industry is great at is doing it again, and doing it again often. But I think the film industry suffers from having too many rules. Nobody says to a painter, ‘You’ve got to use 20 percent blue, 20 percent red, and 20 percent black because that worked last time,’ you know? But it’s totally understandable. Who’s going to throw $50 million at something that doesn’t look right?”