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‘Locke’: Morality and Masculinity

• May 26, 2014 10:51 am

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Over the weekend I finally carved out some time to see Steven Knight's latest film, Locke. It's an audacious picture, perhaps a bit gimmicky—the action takes place almost entirely in the car of one Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy), who tries to solve a personal and a professional crisis over the mobile as he hurtles down the British freeway—but undeniably quite good, possibly even great. Some spoilers after the jump.

The film's marketing campaign managed to keep Locke's central struggle a mystery; I went into the picture assuming that he was in dutch with the mob or the military was out to get him or some such and, as a result, he had to flee his family. The truth, however, is much more mundane, more more common. Locke, a construction foreman responsible for pouring the concrete foundations of 50-story skyscrapers, has fathered a child out of wedlock and is on the way to the baby's birth. Two months premature and born to a woman who could, it seems, tip into postpartum depression with the teensiest of nudges, the baby will know its father. This Locke swears.

But that knowledge comes at a terrible price. The early birth means that he is forced to explain the predicament to his wife over the phone (you married fellas can imagine how well that goes). It also comes the night before the biggest concrete pour of Locke's career, the biggest in the history of the continent for a non-nuclear, non-military structure, we are informed; as a result, he must walk his (semi-drunk) Irish coworker through the job over the mobile. Doing right by the new life he is bringing into the world means potentially, even probably, ruining a promising career and a happy homestead.

Gimmicky or no, Locke works because Tom Hardy, through sheer force of will, makes it work.* As with any great actor, it's all about his eyes: When he's dealing with his construction crew they narrow into a professional, laser-beam-like focus; when he's trying to talk his wife down off the ledge or with his sons as they try to noodle through what's gone wrong, they take on a watery glaze; when he talks to the soon-to-be-new mother or her nurses, they assume a sort of world-weariness, as if they contain the knowledge of all he will lose for doing what is right; and when they focus on his father, an invisible ghost in the backseat, a pitiful man who abandoned him before his birth, they take on a fiery rage.

After the shooting in California this weekend, there was some discussion that "traditional masculinity" was to blame for the rampage. Young men are taught by the culture that they are worthless if they do not have sex with as many women as possible in as short a period of time as possible, consequences of these hookups be damned.

This strikes me as not just wrong, but nearly perverse. Traditional masculinity has little to do with "pick up artist" culture or sexual conquests; that's a much more recent definition of masculinity, one that is undoubtedly linked to the decoupling of sex and love—or sex and consequences—in our modern world. Rather, "traditional masculinity" means doing the right thing. It means taking care of your responsibilities, even if those responsibilities entail a lifetime of hardship and the ruin of a lifetime of hard work. It's Shane in Shane, the Seven in The Magnificent Seven. It's an exceedingly moral position, one taken by an exceedingly moral man.** Locke and Locke are both driven by the same desire to do what's right—to be a man, in the traditional sense.

*I would vent here that if Hardy doesn't get a best actor Oscar for this performance the awards are a sham, except I know both that he won't and that they are, so why bother getting worked up about it?

**As I noted on Twitter, Locke is moral without being moralizing. Religious filmmakers should take notes from Knight's film.

Update: Meant to note that I saw this at the Angelika Mosaic in Virginia. It's worth seeing in the theater (though you should probably hurry; doubt it'll be in theaters much longer), if only because it forces you to focus on Hardy and all his nuances by stripping you of distractions.