Locke Stumbles at Just One Point

Review of Locke, Directed by Steven Knight

Locke is an engrossing study of an individual person, at an important crossroads in life, facing multiple pressures both past, present, and future. It also happens to take place in a car with only one actor. Reminiscent of Gravity and All is Lost, the film is minimalist in its cast, but what makes Locke even more risky for the director (Steven Knight) is that it all happens in a car. There is no circumstantial excitement, no crashes, and the driver doesn’t even break the speed limit, but the film’s pace is still exceptional.

Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is a concrete expert who has never made a mistake in the whole nine years working for a large construction company. He runs a tight ship. This is characteristic of other parts of his life. Locke appears to be a loving husband, devoted father, and someone who is morally Puritan. But on this night, all that falls apart. We don’t know exactly what’s going on at first. Ivan jumps in his BMW and starts heading down the M6 highway in the United Kingdom, making several calls using his Bluetooth car phone, and, with a thick Welsh accent, explaining that something’s happened.

What becomes evident is that a woman named Bethan is giving birth to Locke’s child. They had a one night encounter when Locke was out of town for the concrete pouring of the foundations for a building. Now Bethan is having the child two months early at St. Mary’s in London. But this is both the night of an important football match (he was supposed to go home to his wife and two boys to watch the game) and the night before an early concrete pouring that is supposed to be the largest outside the military-nuclear industry. Ivan makes the decision to be there for Bethan, tell his wife Katrina the truth, and delegate the supervision of tomorrow’s pouring to an unprepared subordinate, which gets Ivan fired.

As several of his interlocutors observe–this is completely outside Locke’s character. When he tells Gareth, his boss, why he can’t be there for the pouring, he is shocked and exclaims, “You of all people!” When he tells Katrina, she repeatedly says she cannot believe it’s Ivan on the phone. But what perhaps eats up Locke the most with this situation is that he has failed to be different from his father. We learn through a handful of soliloquies that Locke’s father abandoned him as a child and, when he showed up many years later, was a miserable mess. Ivan has spent his life trying to live an upright life contrary to his father, but seems to have tripped up on this one point.

For Locke, this one mistake has brought his entire life to ruin, despite years of almost Puritanical living. Even at this moment of desperation, he refuses to go above the speed limit as other cars cruise past him (followed by cop cars). When Bethan calls him from the hospital, she tells him that she loves him, but he refuses to respond, adamant that he hardly knows her and will not lie even to comfort her. Though he is fired, Ivan is determined to make sure the pouring goes well tomorrow, “as a favor to the concrete.”

These acts of ethical courage seem admirable as we watch Locke claw for any semblance of doing the right thing. But he cannot disagree with his wife who said, “The difference between never and once is the difference between good and bad.” This in fact applies understatedly to his situation at work, where after nine years of being a perfect employee, a single absence results in termination.

Locke agrees with the principle: “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (James 2:10). The difference between good and bad, again, is between never and once. While the moral underpinnings of the film are never explicitly investigated, the condemnatory feel of the movie insinuate the justness of the verdict by Ivan’s very acceptance of Katrina’s decision to separate and the company’s decision to fire him.

People talk of American Hustle being turned into a Broadway play. Locke is just as well suited for theater, but of a darker, more cerebral and meditative breed. At one point, Bethan jokes about her “waiting for Godot,” casting doubt on Locke’s commitment to be at her side. While Samuel Beckett’s absurdist play is a far call from Locke, the isolated setting and the inconclusive ending leaves one in a lurch, as if still waiting for the conclusive scene where Locke hears words of forgiveness from Katrina and of congratulations from Donal and Gareth that the concrete pour went well. All we get is that Bethan’s child is born, which is in itself a bittersweet reality.

Locke has been described as “minimalist” and “understated,” which translates into: this movie isn’t for everyone. The film has a mix of humor, tragedy, and even suspense, but after Ivan finally takes the exit off the highway, one is left wondering.


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