It’s tough to take risks in filmmaking. Directors want to deliver something stylish and interesting, but they don’t want to doom their project to an endless conversation about “gimmicks” that overwhelm the legitimate appreciation of everything else it has going for it. There’s a tendency to oversell and underdevelop, to rely on the audience’s fascination with the Thing rather than to make the Thing meaningful. It’s a tough needle to thread, and it rarely works out. The key is to use the Thing as an extension of a theme or narrative element that already exists. 2014’s Locke takes a few of these risks by restricting its audience’s point of view to a single location via a single character. It feels a little obnoxious at first, but we quickly realize why a distinctive visual style is essential to the overall piece: Locke is about the way a character’s isolation influences his ability to communicate. It’s about the space between different phases of his life and the way he uses that space to control how he gets to each one.
Locke is primarily driven by pressure and claustrophobia. Nearly the whole film takes place in and around the driver’s seat of Ivan’s car, and his is the sole face we see. The rest of the cast (Andrew Scott and Ruth Wilson among them) appear only through the dashboard speakerphone as Ivan negotiates his way through the waves of crisis and complication they throw at him. The film is presented in nearly-real time, with only a few cross-fades and blurry visual cues to reorient the audience. What at first seem like gimmicks are instead the important stylistic choices that writer/director Steven Knight uses to build the larger metaphor of a solitary mind at work. Ivan’s physical isolation means he has to rely on his communication skills, which are at the mercy of his telephone and the people on the other end of it. Dozens of calls are dropped, cut off, and unanswered, creating new issues and forcing him to adapt. The audience must adapt as well, as we are totally locked in Ivan’s point of view. All of this makes Locke an almost unsettling exercise in subjectivity.
We’re listening, too. Ivan’s lilting Welsh cadence allows him to project calm control over each new situation. It’s almost musical in its finest moments, the ones in which he’s waxing philosophical about proper concrete mixtures or the simple steps one has to take to Make Everything Okay. While we’d think the limitations of the telephone would hinder him, the physical separation actually allows him to use his most distinctive trait to its full advantage. He can make people deal with him on his terms without ever having to look desperate or emotional. He can talk to his father (represented here as an empty rear car seat) without seeming strange. He never has to look anyone in the eye or stand up to a physical confrontation. His wife cries alone and his kids are left in the dark. We’re the only ones who see him sweating and blowing his nose between phone calls. We’re the only ones who see him screaming bloody murder and staring at his lap in shame. By encasing himself in this protected space in between one place and the other, Ivan is able to stand at a remove from the complicated shitstorm his words and actions have caused.