Till now, Tom Hardy's best-known performances have tended to project the image of the movie star most likely to headbutt someone on the red carpet. I'm not thinking just of his unintelligibly deranged Batman villain Bane, but also of his extraordinary lead in Bronson, playing the notorious British prison hard case like a roaringly theatrical circus strongman. His soft-spoken protagonist in Locke is entirely different, yet there's still a touch of the excess that you associate with Hardy – for Ivan Locke is a man who lives, as his name suggests, with an excessive degree of control.
Steven Knight's film starts with Locke, a Welsh construction professional, leaving a Birmingham building site in his BMW – which is where he stays for the rest of the film, driving and making phone calls. His wife and two sons are expecting him home to watch a football match – Mum's specially getting in German beer and sausages, his son tells him – but Locke informs them he won't be back in time. Nor will he be at work the next day, where he's due to supervise a major concrete pour – a job on which £11m (and the structural dependability of a skyscraper) is riding.
Why is this perennially reliable man going awol? It turns out that Locke once slept with a woman named Bethan (heard on the phone, voiced by Olivia Colman) and that she became pregnant. He barely knows Bethan, he matter-of-factly tells his wife Katrina (Ruth Wilson), but has decided to drive to London, where the baby is due. Meanwhile there's the concrete to worry about, and Locke is determined to see the job through, remote-guiding his increasingly anxious deputy (Andrew Scott), organising traffic closures and basically trying to do right by everyone – including his family, whose stability he has just quietly dynamited.
Locke believes in doing the right thing – to an extent that can seem cold, pathological, even deluded. When he tells his son, "I'll fix it and it'll all go back to normal," this lucid-seeming man suddenly sounds unhinged. There's a backstory, which explains his motivation, and here's where the film goes astray. Between phone calls, Locke snaps – the red-eyed madcap Hardy periodically re-emerging – and launches into monologues addressed to the father who let him down.
These moments feel superfluous. The film presents us with a man who quietly reveals far more about his psyche than he suspects – in routine discussions of concrete types or traffic control – but in these monologues Knight spells out too much. It's the one false move of a drama that's so subtle in every other way. We only ever see a man in a car, and hear voices over the phone, yet we picture for ourselves so much of the off-screen world: Bethan's isolated existence, the smooth-running but clearly fragile equilibrium Locke has built at home, the professional network that holds his competence in profound respect.
Knight ramps up the stress with artful delicacy. The real nail-biter touch is sublimely banal: a robotic "call waiting" voice chipping away at us like water torture. There's enough tense humour to remind us of the thin line between farce and the horror of everyday crisis – like the councillor who keeps bellowing, "I'm in an Indian restaurant!"
Hardy's roles don't often give him the chance to work in a minor key, but here he shows a mastery of small, telling gestures – gently furrowing his brow, putting a hand to his mouth – all suggestive of a man constantly tamping down his inner tension. He speaks quietly, slowly, with pauses and dips of volume accompanying smooth, Richard Burton-like Welsh cadences – as if Locke, a master persuader of others, is also trying to hypnotise himself into believing that all is well.
Steven Knight's scripts for Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things and David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises showed his penchant for the nocturnal, and he takes it to the limit in this second feature as director (following the ill-received Hummingbird). In fact, Locke isn't altogether unprecedented: Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami made a formidably minimal people-in-cars drama in his 2002 feature Ten, and don't forget another Welshman-at-the-wheel vehicle, Rob Brydon's comedy series Marion and Geoff, also a telling depiction of personal collapse.
With some brilliance, Knight and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos make Locke's car a compressed theatrical stage – catching the dynamism of the traffic flow outside, the lightshow flickering on the windshield. Yet Locke isn't formally as hardcore as it might have been: Knight is concerned to keep the visuals interesting, shooting his protagonist from different angles in a way that's finally too busy and distracting. You wish he'd let a static camera hang on Hardy's face for longer, or just allow him a few stretches of silence.
But overall, Locke is a bold, evocative film, in which voices, intonations and noises off – and a terrific unseen supporting cast – build up a detailed picture of a world and a man's life, as elegantly and economically as the best radio play. In this case, a radio play with orange motorway glare and the occasional passing Eddie Stobart truck.