'Locke': One actor, one sequence, one gripping tale

The word “suspense” triggers visions of ticking bombs, political conspiracies, elusive gunmen or plotters pulling off a heist. Writer-director Steven Knight uses it in the most literal sense in “Locke,” a one-man tour de force for Tom Hardy: We suspend everything else in our lives to watch him for 85 minutes, in a sense of uneasy anticipation.

Nobody fires a shot. Nobody topples a kingdom. But as Ivan Locke’s life unravels behind the wheel of his car, which he drives almost from the first frame to the last, we can’t look away.

He leaves a massive construction project on the night before the largest private pour of concrete in European history. The 55-story skyscraper will begin without the soft-spoken Welshman, who has received a stunning phone call just before the film begins: The woman he slept with once on a business trip the previous year and has never seen again is giving birth to his premature child.

Locke, himself raised without a father, decides to be present at the birth and retain a place in the youngster’s life. As he motors down the highway, occasionally talking to the unseen ghost of his hated dad, he takes calls on his car phone.

He calms the panicked assistant left in charge, reassures his boss, tries to placate his enraged wife and anxious children. He never lies: When asked by the pregnant woman if he’ll say just once that he loves her, he politely refuses. Though all threaten him with dire consequences, he hurtles toward unplanned fatherhood.

Knight reportedly shot the film in continuous, real-time takes over a week: When the car’s warning bell indicated it was low on gas, he turned that chime into a “Call waiting” beep. The other actors sat in a hotel room, taking turns on the phone, as Hardy drove the car. (We see Locke constantly blowing his nose, because Hardy had a cold during the shoot.)

Knight, cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos and editor Justine Wright find angles and cuts that keep the film interesting visually. It misses its footing only when problems develop at the construction site; an unsigned permit and faulty piece of steel sound like things a man this careful would have checked on the night before the big pour.

Locke comes across otherwise as remarkably competent, an attentive dad, profoundly stubborn and finally surprisingly emotional. This seemingly prosaic man has a streak of poetry in him: He exhorts an underling by saying, “We do it for the piece of sky we are stealing. We do it for the concrete, which is as delicate as blood.”

Perhaps Knight was thinking of British philosopher John Locke – “Ivan” is a variant of “John” – who argued, among other things, that the mind is a blank slate at childhood, and that youthful impressions mark us for life.

John Locke believed we are neither innately good or bad; our actions, guided by our intelligence and moral sense, make us what we are. Ivan Locke adheres to that philosophy, even when it threatens to tear his life apart.