Ivan Locke has a cold.
The Birmingham construction manager and title character of “Locke” — who, from the sound of his accent, arrived in England by way of Wales — is leaving work on an otherwise ordinary night when, instead of turning left to go home, he turns right. After placing a call to an unknown person on the other end (“I’m on my way; I’ll get there”), Locke commences a 90-minute drive to London, captured in virtually real time over the course of a movie that unfolds like one of the great radio dramas of yore — with the incalculable added value of the great Tom Hardy, here masterfully carrying a taut, engrossing one-man show.
The reason for Locke’s sudden change of mind becomes clear within the first several minutes of “Locke,” but in a movie in which every second counts, even that early detail counts as a spoiler. Suffice it to say that the parameters of Locke’s life — the mission he’s on, the enormous concrete pour he’s supposed to oversee the next day, the wife and two sons expecting him any minute to watch a highly anticipated soccer match — all come into blade-sharp focus as Locke places and receives a series of increasingly emotional phone calls.
With every conversation, Locke’s own temperament comes into view, like the oncoming cars in his blurry windshield. Punctilious, conscientious, powered by belief in his own rectitude and practicality, Locke is a soft-spoken, even modestly elegant man, at least until those moments when, overwhelmed by the cascading effects he’s set in motion, he lets loose with a shouted vulgarity or diatribe against an unseen ghost in the back seat. (Much like another well-constructed thriller, Jeremy Saulnier’s “Blue Ruin,” “Locke” turns out to be a portrait of a man either trying to outrun or heal his own past.)
Written and directed by Steven Knight — the superb writer behind “Dirty Pretty Things” and “Eastern Promises” — “Locke” is so distilled, such a pure example of cinematic storytelling, that it almost feels abstract. In many ways, the movie feels like the reply to a question: What would happen if we pared down moviemaking to its simplest, most elemental bones?
In the hands of a virtuoso like Hardy, the answer is a riveting exercise in voice, facial expression and that mysterious x-factor known as charisma, that ineffable command presence that grabs the audience by its collective throat and never, ever slips.
Knight occasionally breaks away from Hardy’s face, capturing the sheen of the car’s reflective surfaces, then returns to a man bathed in the jaundiced glow of streetlights and his own sickened realization that the life he has so carefully constructed is on the brink of implosion. Then there’s that cold medicine he swigs as the car makes its way on the rain-slicked highway.
Despite Locke’s studiously even-tempered attempts to hold himself accountable for his decisions (his soothing tones recall Richard Burton at his most incantatory), the tension keeps inexorably building, thanks in large part to Knight’s own canny command of pacing, structure and tone. But in terms of emotion, it’s Hardy alone who has made us care about how things work out for Locke. Indeed, it’s only in the final moments of his fateful journey that we realize we were invested the moment he chose to make that right-hand turn instead of left.
R. At area theaters. Contains profanity throughout.