Locke: a life deconstructed


IN HIS LATEST FILM, “Locke,” British actor Tom Hardy plays the role of a construction manager. From this one may deduce not only a job description but an identity. Ivan Locke is a man who constructs, and Steven Knight’s screenplay concerns a carefully and well-constructed life as it rapidly deconstructs in real time.

The story of Locke takes place entirely in an automobile. The plot is simple and sparse, yet emotionally and dramatically intense. Tom Hardy is the only on-screen actor. His interactions with others – his wife, a mistress, two work colleagues and miscellaneous hospital staff – occur over the phone. There are monologues of a Faulknerian character in which Locke addresses his absent father. The movie is at once tense, engaging and suffocating. The point here is not to review the film (which in any case is well worth seeing) but to consider its themes.

We all know people like Ivan Locke. He is a project manager, and like all project managers is linear, cautious, methodical and, in a word, anal. In his past however there is an evening when he behaved unlike himself and did something impulsive. This one uncharacteristic action sets in motion his eventual undoing. The film begins on the evening of this reckoning. In the space of a drive from the suburbs into London, Locke’s carefully planned and executed life is unraveling. But of course even as the consequences of a past indiscretion close in upon him, he lays a plan in the belief that he can fix everything and that life will “go back to normal.”

This is not however the story of a man trying to save his skin. Locke is driven by loyalty and principle. He chooses to be honest and candid with his wife, to fulfill his obligations to his employer, and to meet the moral obligations which flow from his previous, rash behaviour. Indeed, it is this principled decision of his to do what he feels is morally correct that hastens his ruin. Locke has committed an immoral act and is trying to right it the only way he can, by facing head-on the consequences in a logical, orderly manner.

The problem of course is that life is not linear, nor is it a sequence of logically derived steps. Although he has himself set matters in motion, and is therefore the author of his fortunes, we can see that his fortunes will also be the author of him. The best of plans can not but succumb to the caprice of circumstance. Human beings are messy and at times irrational, as his own impulsive and inexplicable behaviour discloses. But Locke can only plot, or construct, a service road that will soon enough bring him back to the straight and narrow from which he has been abruptly detoured.

The movie is compelling precisely because this theme of a life detoured is so easily grasped. We humans can’t but think in straight lines, and even though we understand that life is populated by the unforeseeable, and by twists and dead-ends, we plot as if none of this were the case. There is the here and now, and there is the there and then: we connect our “is” and our “what will be” with a line, and we imagine ourselves going forward to our destination. Then life happens. Do we abandon all hopes and plans? No, we improvise, re-calibrate, and tell ourselves all will work out. Locke is an examination of this universal human work, condensed in one powerful evening inside a BMW as it navigates the roads of greater London.

In one sense, you could argue that Locke deserves his fall. He has done something that he knows is wrong. But it is also the case that he is doing everything right to atone. The force of his past is beyond his control. As in a Shakespearean tragedy, the forces of nature are at work. There is a moral order that no one may circumvent. The best one can do is to comport himself with honour and decency as the wheels of destiny inexorably grind him into dust. Such is the world of this film. We watch with sympathy and understanding as Locke tries to keep within their familiar orbits the celestial bodies of a personal cosmos whose moral and gravitational centre no longer holds.

Is it just and fitting that a committed life, founded on planning and diligence, should be derailed by one careless mistake? To ask that question is to misunderstand the moral terrain across which this movie traverses. The point is that life will take the course that it takes. It is human to make decisions and to construct plans, but having done so one may not reasonably hope to master the consequences, defy gravity, or map a bloodless journey through the affairs of the heart – or even merely to get from point A to point B without surprise detours along the way. Locke is a story of human resilience and determination which also reminds us why these are necessary in the first place.

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