Thursday, May 15, 2014

Locke (2014) A Film by Steven Knight

Locke’s secret ingredient is its modesty, a quality that, in this case, is both a virtue and an achilles’ heel. The film is, at its core, a pressurized look at problem solving—not problems with Earth-shaking stakes, but with immediate, definable ones. After 85 minutes of smooth, continuous freeway driving and incessant speakerphone Bluetooth calls, Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) reaches a point where his predicament is, if not fully solved, at least temporarily mitigated. Damage has been done, but Locke has tried his best to minimize it. Then the movie ends, with no emotional fireworks display necessary. Its matter-of-fact conclusion may leave viewers in a sort of blue-balls state, surprised or even baffled by the film’s final refusal to provide any twist on such a grounded scenario, but it’s fairly clear that, on a narrative level, Locke doesn’t overstep its boundaries. With so many spring releases at the multiplexes trying to ingratiate their audiences with razzle-dazzle (convoluted plot mechanics, robust special effects or state-of-the-art technology), this unexpected storytelling economy is worth recognizing and applauding.

Laid out by screenwriter/director Steven Knight, the parameters of Locke’s modest setup are not (nor do they need to be) terribly intriguing on paper: a Welsh construction worker skips town one night without warning, ditching a crucial concrete pour to be in London for the birth of a baby he seeded during an extramarital affair, all while he struggles to assuage the explosive frustrations and uncertainties of his newly informed wife back home. It’s an Everyman crisis, the sort of accumulation of mistakes and sacrifices that every once in a while clogs the complacent flow of daily life. Knight’s borderline-paranoid-thriller visual vocabulary – a plethora of close-ups of a man in a constricted space, often offset in the frame as if implying unseen onlookers and surrounded by the dancing lights of an anonymous outside world – is prone to giving the impression (problematically, I think) of a conspiratorial subplot just waiting to break through the small-scale edges of the central storyline, but none ever comes. For better or worse, every detail of Locke’s dilemma is made clear. It’s also clear that that any resolution (or lack thereof) to this dilemma will be due to his actions alone. There are no impediments. There’s not even any traffic.

Issues start to arise when Knight’s direction shows traces of wavering commitment to the cinematic potential of the chosen material. Repeated glances at flashing police cars raise suspicion about a potential criminal edge to Locke’s backstory, and intimations of a rapidly worsening sickness (complete with ominous swigs of Nyquil) become irrelevant once Locke’s symptoms suddenly and miraculously vanish—both are temporarily labored-over, tension-heightening non-sequiturs for which productive use is never found and which are therefore dispensed with on the fly. The most misguided peripheral bit is Locke’s embittered running commentary to his empty backseat, where he imagines his deceased failure of a father to be smugly looking on. Break up the monotony of the film’s otherwise entirely phone-based dialogue though these scenes may, they nonetheless offer up an authorial point-of-view on Locke’s steadfast dedication to staying calm where the rest of the film smartly withholds one. Knight’s incorporation of this dime store psychoanalytic self-therapy actually trivializes the gravity of the situation rather than deepening it.

This is, after all, a film whose greatest source of success lies in its attempt to distill human experience down to actions and reactions. Save for some corny montages set to Dickon Hinchliffe’s uninspired score (Explosions in the Sky-like jams that could have been excavated with a “melancholy” search on Audio Jungle), Locke is basically an end-to-end succession of phone calls, a blunt approach that allows Ivan (and, by extension, Hardy; the film was allegedly shot in one go) little time for reflection. Hardy, for his part, injects plausible human rhythms into Knight’s fairly graceless dramatic formula, only rarely resorting to actorly shorthand (slamming or leaning onto the wheel to signal Frustration, ruffling his beard to telegraph Uncertainty). What results is an unrelenting study of poise under pressure that is itself quite poised, as well as a dissection of uniquely masculine psychological habits and codes of behavior: selective avoidance of truth-telling in instances when spilling the beans would have predictable negative effects; a certain bluntness (Locke may avoid confronting his marital mistake verbally for a while, but when he does his confession comes swiftly and without any beating around the bush, a tactic that could be construed as a lack of empathy); an unwillingness to dwell on the past and a failure to assess the likely future. At its best, the film is quite despairing; it subtly ponders whether firm, diplomatic actions in the present can ever fully correct errors in the past.

Still, coming away from Locke I’m left with a nagging impression of fundamental banality. At one point, Bethan, Locke’s defiantly one-time mistress/mother of his baby, jokingly remarks in reference to his impending arrival, “it’s like waiting for God,” only to swiftly correct herself: “Godot.” Her offhand Beckettian call-out doubles as Knight’s most officious announcement of the existential terrain he aspires to, but considering Beckett as a particularly useful reference point would be misleading. Locke’s existentialism is general and accessible, relying on familiar storytelling strategies and motifs: a single location, a dark night (of the soul), and the open road. The film’s incessant nocturnal bokeh is less an inspired aesthetic imposition than a near-inevitability under the on-location circumstances (low light means wide aperture, and single seated subject surrounded by horrible places to fit a camera means no wide shots) opportunistically recruited as “style.” It therefore becomes a stretch to see the blurred highway movement as any specific thematic idea beyond a vague notion of the road as a symbol for the unstoppable, often chaotic forward motion of life. All of which is fine, but it does little to carve out an original identity for a film that so comfortably embraces such a prosaic narrative.

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