Leonard Cohen: Bird on a Wire
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A review of "Locke," which screened at the Venice Film Festival.
Phones and cars often come first on the list of props used in movies dealing with real-time (or various approximations of that) events—both are mighty weapons particularly suitable to be wielded against the greatest of foes, the ticking clock. Steven Knight's "Locke," shown out of Competition in Venice, makes ample use of them during its 90-minute running time, but it does so by defusing the destructive potential they usually have in the genre.
So, when Ivan Locke gets in his BMW and connects his phone to the integrated Bluetooth system, he looks like a man determined to make things right, efficiently and with a minimal amount of fuss. It is a cold night in Birmingham, and Ivan's family awaits at home with the promise of sausages, soccer and good fun. Something's not right, though. Whatever it is, it's eating away at Mr. Locke, and it only takes a traffic light to finally convince him to turn right instead of left. Family, soccer and the record-breaking shipment of concrete en route to his construction site will have to wait—Ivan has unfinished business to take care of. London is just 90 minutes away.
Tom Hardy's performance as Ivan is, of course, not only the film's best asset but the only one available. This is Hardy at his most 'normal', and as a guy who specializes in over-the-top creations he was perhaps not the most intuitive choice for the role; he is great nonetheless, softened by a scruffy beard and ordinary shirt and jumper. What is certainly not ordinary is his remarkable lucidity when everything starts to crumble. With each turn of the wheel a new contact name appears on the display, and with each new name Ivan's predicament—which I'll leave to viewers to discover—gets a tiny bit worse. This guy's steely logic does not waver, though. As he keeps repeating, he wants to "talk about a practical next step".
With a director who is first and foremost a writer, it's no wonder that the many people at the other end of Ivan's phone conversations come across as fleshed-out characters, making for a dynamic, actively engaged part of the story. While the structural gimmick could have quickly gone stale, Knight's script keeps angling for those authentic moments of human interaction, with drama and even humor aplenty. It helps that Knight has built a screenwriting career on solid genre skills enriched by a keen eye for idiosyncratic elements within the socio-cultural city landscape (especially London). "Locke"'s story lives in the space between Birmingham and London, but the city-specific details about class, integration and work are all there, and are pitch-perfect. Earlier this year, "Hummingbird" ("Redemption" in the US) stealthily carved the 'Statham-ness' out of a Jason Statham movie, replacing with an uneven but profoundly fascinating exploration of the London underworld that had begun with Knight penning the script for "Dirty Little Things" and David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises".
The attention to the writing does not come at the expense of the visuals, either. Filmed for peanuts and potentially nothing more than a visual rendition of a vintage radio show, "Locke" gently drowns the viewer in a dreamy ocean of asphalt and lights, in which reflections and transparencies melt with the dissolves creating a fluid, boundless visual environment. The camera has no other option but focus on Hardy, and yet the abstract quality of DP Haris Zambarloukos's lensing keeps things interesting. He might be on the M6 motorway to London, but Ivan Locke is really floating in space. Which is funny, because "Locke" also shares similarities with Festival-opener "Gravity". Tom Hardy and Sandra Bullock are both individually traveling to rescue themselves, and both are possessed by a singular, indomitable impulse to reach their destination. It's journey as therapy, and resolve as personal salvation. They'll make for a neat double bill, someday. In the meantime, they'll leave the Lido having stood together among the very best of the Festival. They're just driving, and going places.
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