Tom Hardy has been working steadily in British film and television for nearly 15 years, but American audiences largely know his special brand of mesmerism via secondary roles: as the villainous Bane with the voice box of doom in The Dark Knight Rises; the sad-Lothario secret agent Ricki Tarr in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; Inception's smooth criminal and Lawless' stoic bootlegger. (Or the McG abomination This Means War, a rare dance with disposable Hollywood product; we'll say no more.) Hardy's newest film, Locke, won't court a kernel of the audience that popped to the most recent Batman movie, but it's a far better showcase of the actor's talents.
Written and directed by Steven Knight (who also penned Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises; he's good with grim), Locke has the feel of a one-act, one-man play, with its swift running time and limited scope. But then, it would never work onstage, because the whole thing takes place inside a car, and that car — a moving weapon so taken for granted we invent a hundred other things to do while driving — is essential to the film's grosgrain of mundaneness and bated-breath suspense.
Hardy plays Ivan Locke, a family man and construction foreman battling a cold as he drives alone on an at-first mysterious mission. The little gray cells (not to mention those tiny, intuitive hairs on the back of the neck) prick at the welcome call to action, tasked to piece together the source of conflict between Locke and a series of callers (heard but never seen), from his boss to his wife to a hospital in London. But kick out the legs of the plot engine — the first-watch uncertainty of where Locke is going and why — and what sticks is its stirring portrait of a detail-oriented man trying to stay true to his self-defined code of honor. Locke also delivers a couple of soliloquies to his dead dad. Hardy has a field day with them, ghosting Richard Burton's melodious Welsh accent and percolating rage, but it's a touch theatrical: Locke's inner roil is already plenty apparent without these "thinking out loud" moments.
A restless, nervy actor, Hardy seems to get a kick out of tying one hand behind his back. He dominated The Dark Knight Rises even with a modified ball gag obscuring most of his face. Here, locked behind a steering wheel and a conceptual gimmick, he has only the upper half of his body to work with. No surprise to anybody who's been paying attention: Half a Hardy adds up to a hell of a lot. ♦