This years Sydney Film Festival is chock-full of structural concepts that, in theory, make a film interesting. From Boyhood‘s 12-year shoot to Fish & Cat‘s one-take to The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby‘s two-parter to Goal of the Dead‘s director change halfway through, this year cinema that breaks from the norm seems to be in vogue. Steven Knight’s Locke is set primarily in a car, following Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) as he drives across England to London, propelled by intense amounts of stress and a burning desire to avoid the mistakes of his father. The structural quirk on offer here, though, isn’t unique. A man in a confined space receiving and making phone calls for an entire film was done in 2010, with Rodrigo Cortés‘ sorely underrated Buried. The differences between Buried and Locke are vast, in style, setting and character. One thing stands out primarily, though – Buried is a fully formed film, Locke is merely a screenwriter’s exercise.
A lot of what makes a ‘bottle’ film like Locke successful is the ability to connect or relate to, or even like, the main character. This is probably where Locke went wrong for me. Ivan Locke is an individual whose sanctimonious desire to only do “what’s right” makes him utterly uncompelling. I didn’t care about his problems, his family, his stress – we had no real reason to other than hamfisted backstory Ivan himself has told us. The plot itself, consisting of phone calls that are life-changing and handled in a wholly unrealistic manner, lacks an interesting hook. Whilst the panic over the biggest concrete pouring in England is able to heighten the emotional stakes of his family disintegration, the information we are being given is lacking. The sheer coincidence of the plot feels less like genuine emotional stakes than contrived plot planning, once more the justification “I’ve made my decision” arises and it seems at odds with logic.
The weak coping mechanism of talking to his father ‘in the backseat’, which was both poorly conceived and terribly unsubtle, lets monologue after monologue set up the stakes for an emotional payoff rather than relying on nuance in storytelling. So much characterisation, in fact, was assumed through dialogue over action. We are told he is incredible at his job, is “the best man in England”, is acting completely “out of character”. Without actions, though, we take the film at its literal word – making Hardy’s depiction moreso a caricature than someone real. That’s not to say Hardy does a bad job. His Welsh accent was an odd choice, rendering him mostly monotonous, yet he is an actor who can carry an entire film on his back, which he does here. His physicality in the car is something of note, each time he slaps the dash we feel it, him lashing out in anger seems the only real thing about him.
Whilst there are a few amusing exchanges, primarily with Irish site worker Donal, a lot of the dialogue is either trite – borrowed from other family dramas – or too obvious in their intent. The scene where Locke tells his superior that he has lost everything and that it’s “just me and my car” was infuriating, essentially citing the narrative hook of the film and selling it as self-realisation. It feels like a first draft script, to be honest, with rough ideas and sequences meandering into one another, still in need of being polished into something intelligent and emotionally sincere.
It’s a disappointment that a film which purports to do something unique with narrative form cannot do the same with narrative content. By virtue of cast and marketing it appears pre-packaged as a thriller, when in fact it is nothing more than a run-of-the-mill melodrama wrapped up in a slick exterior. If we leave Ivan Locke, sans car, we have merely a simplistic arc of family drama and infidelity with intermittent interruptions from a work crisis. In fact, let’s take the plot construction as a whole – we have a man whose personal (family) and work (massive concrete contract) are going to hell in a handbasket in one night and the vessel through which he traverses these issues is the car that takes him from work to family. At the very outset the means of telling, then, is unsubtle thematic positioning through visual and physical construction.
The film’s visuals also suffer. Notwithstanding the fact that most of the shots in the film are either the interior of a car or the freeway, it does little to make them visually interesting or engaging. The only stabs of colour are orange and blue, reflections from streetlights and also an uncomfortable visual link to the monotony of modern movie poster design. The editing department’s main outlet of creativity is superimposing Hardy’s face on shots of the highway, creating an impossible reflection out of splitscreen. The film opens with overly obvious visual cues – he’s indicating left, he closes his eyes to think, he jolts awake at a truck’s horn, he indicates right and drives off down the road less travelled – oh man!
The narrative itself, in particular one which relied so much on portension, ends without satisfying the audience. A clichéd phone call from his son then one final call from the person he’s been driving to see acts as a one-two punch of laziness in tying up narrative strands, in particular the final call, after which the camera leaves his car and lets him drive off with a sense of hope for the future. It feels like the script ran out of creative road, once a certain event happens at the film’s end, Knight doesn’t really know how to deal with the conclusion, Locke delivering a pithy line then the camera leaving him as he drives off into the night. Whilst somewhat interesting in theory, Locke fails to do anything of note with its narrative and that is what brings it down.
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