'Locke' is the Best New Film of the Year

by David Thomson | April 24, 2014

photo credit: IM Global

It starts and ends with the Welsh voice, because, in playing Ivan Locke, the actor Tom Hardy and the director Steven Knight have elected to make Locke Welsh. Is that important? Close your eyes and listen.

The man could have come from anywhere in the United Kingdom. Hardy has already covered a range of characters, from the upper classes (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) to the most brutal depths (Bronson). He did rural Virginia in Lawless. So why Welsh? Does the story have any bearing on Welsh history and nationalism? I don’t think so. Is Dylan Thomas quoted? No. Are there references to rugby? No, soccer is this film’s game. So why Welsh?

Well, you see, it’s like this: The Welsh take enormous and justified pride in their voice (though they prefer to seem a modest people). It is a small country of choirs, many of them male and based—once upon a time—in the mining communities that were decimated by English rationalism. The Welsh love to sing, and they speak as if song was the next option. Wales is a country of hills, mountains, meadows and vales, very green. (The sun doesn’t shine too much—because that could hurt your eyes.) But there is a feeling that the voice of the country has been kept moist, fresh, supple, and suggestive by the rain, as much as by the old influence of church and chapel, and by the smothered anger at the English for being such foul, bloody, superior shits. So the Welsh voice is gentle, musical, lilting, soft, insinuating, a little fussy, and so very suggestive that, as you are beguiled by it, you may not immediately pick up the steely strength in it, the veiled stubbornness, the anger, and the amazement that there are idiots (especially in the United Kingdom) who do not understand that spiritually, metaphysically and in matters of order the Welsh are supreme.

If that seems a lot to make of the way a man speaks, then you are ready for Locke, the man and the movie. It is night on the motorway system of Britain. Ivan Locke is driving. The lights of the traffic and the cities begin to make jeweled patterns on his capsule. After a few minutes you say to yourself, “Is this whole film going to be Tom Hardy in the car, driving and talking on the phone?” Well, I won’t answer that, but it’s a legitimate question. Just as in All is Lost you wonder whether Robert Redford is going to survive, here you worry when and how Ivan Locke is going to be able to stop and take a pee.

This is the night of his life. He ought to be on his way home to watch football on the telly with his eager sons. His wife has got the sausages and the German beer Ivan likes. It’s all laid on, but he has to tell the boys that he’s not going to be able to make it—sorry, but there we are.

It seems as if his job needs him, and Locke has a very important job. In concrete—get set, because you are going to learn more about concrete than you ever thought you were ready for. You see, Locke is the chief engineer on a new building project (run by a big company in Chicago), and the night after Locke’s drive takes place they are going to deliver the wet concrete for the foundation. This is a very delicate task—apart from nuclear facilities, it’s the biggest concrete run in history. Ivan knows that this job needs him more than the family at home—and that’s a sadness that you can hear in his voice. So he’s driving to the site for the concrete?

Ah, well, no, not quite. You see, there’s another matter that has come up. I’m not going to spoil the film by telling you what it is. You’ll soon find out—it’s not a long film, even if it proves to be a terrible night. There are no car crashes or police chases, don’t worry about that. But this is what it comes to, and this is the profound and lovely strain that is exerted on his soft, gentle Welsh voice: Ivan Locke is screwed, fucked, and check-mated. He has always been a master planner and organizer. That’s why he’s a chief engineer, and he had everything planned. But Locke has got to a point where he has too much on his plate. And too much in his life. You could say that he is a control freak, though no Welshman is ever going to do control freak in a big, scenery-chewing way, and there’s no scenery in a car, really, is there? But inside he is freaking out because every dream he had of everything in its own place has gone wild. Those lights on the motorway are more than just lights. They are the locusts and the furies of confusion hurling themselves at the soft-spoken hopes of Ivan Locke. He’s ruined.

The material of Locke is a nighttime car journey and Locke’s attempt to talk to six or seven people on his car phone. There’s a subtext, if you like, for a car phone is one of those things that indicates that you can have a very complicated life and keep all the elements in their proper place, until the phone becomes like the perfect storm that is going to break your car in pieces. The only people who are ready to see Locke are those who most days of the week feel like crying out because multi-tasking is a death sentence, and all the contrary things you have to do are killing you or making you grow old faster than your speed on the motorway. It’s a film about order and chaos, with a lovely Welsh voice caught in the middle.

There are many voices in the film, but only one actor on camera, Tom Hardy—and if you don’t know who he is, tomorrow you’ll be asking yourself why you’re allowed out when you’re so stupid. Steven Knight wrote the scripts for the movies Eastern Promises (by David Cronenberg) and Dirty Pretty Things (by Stephen Frears). He also created the television program Who Wants To Be a Millionaire? So if you need credentials, there they are. Meanwhile, Locke is the most unexpected, brilliant, captivating movie of the year so far. Go see it fast and start working on your Welsh voice. It’s like wet concrete, and once it settles in your head it could be there a lot longer than you.

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