COLLISION COURSE: Locke (Tom Hardy) tries to manage personal and professional disasters from the road.

What's more exciting, watching an actor lose control or an actor barely keeping it? In Locke, Tom Hardy is Ivan Locke, a man on a long night's journey from the Midlands to London via the featureless M6 motorway. He intercepts a battery of telephone calls as he drives his BMW through the night.

In the morning, Locke has before him the biggest project of his career—a massive concrete pour that will be the base for a skyscraper. He's going through with it, despite having been fired by the home office in Chicago. Locke's second in command, Donal (voiced by Andrew Scott), is on speed-dial, and Donal has started celebrating too early. Meanwhile, Locke's wife (Ruth Wilson), the mother of his two sons, is learning the full scope of an indiscretion he had: Bethan (Olivia Colman) was a one night stand who got pregnant. She decided to keep the baby, and is in the midst of complicated labor in a London maternity hospital even as Locke drives south.

Hardy is a Londoner, but he uses a feline yet feathery Welsh voice for the part, with traces of Celtic slyness, as when he advises Donal "Your conscience will keep you from drinking." This actor has been a formidable second stringer, a Batman villain so tricked out with accent and costume that it was hard to see what he could do. This is the role that will take him to the top. While the film's essentially a radio drama on wheels, cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos makes the diffused lights of the road ominous, a kaleidoscope of colored circlets and wet amoebic shapes.

The film is most acute when Locke is talking to himself, wishing aloud he could disinter his lazy, useless father. Then, the dead elder could behold a real man who meets his responsibilities. Inevitably, like so many overachieving children of slacker parents, he made a far more sprawling mess of his life than his hippie dad ever did.

Steven Knight's direction betrays the project's seriousness in the too-life-affirming finale. The sweetness softens the film's well-turned point of how cruelly focused a person has to work to stay alive and support a family; the film ends less like Arthur Miller than Ayn Rand. Maybe it's one plot point too many: a true master builder would know not to stack it this high.


R; 85 MIN.

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