Midway upon the journey of our life,

I found myself within a forest dark,

For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

— Dante, Inferno, Canto One

At the start of Locke, we see Tom Hardy’s title character Ivan Locke come off a huge construction site; chuck off his boots and reflective vest and get into his BMW; leaving the day’s work, he’s about to turn left; after a pause, he turns right, and begins heading into the night along England’s motorways. Written and directed by Steven Knight (Eastern Promises), Locke never leaves Ivan’s car as he travels down the M6 towards a reckoning that his phone calls and occasional externalized monologue explain to us. Tomorrow, Ivan’s supposed to be supervising the biggest-ever concrete pour in Europe in order to form the base of a 55-story skyscraper; tonight, he’s supposed to be at home with his wife and children watching footy. Instead, though, he’s headed for London, where a woman he had a one-night stand with months ago on a job is about to give birth to a child …

As Ivan tries to get his co-worker Donal (Andrew Scott of Sherlock)  to handle the preparations and double-checks for a massive job that will require fine-tuned precision, he also takes and makes calls with his wife Katrina (Ruth Wilson) and with Bethan (Olivia Coleman), the expectant woman who’s expecting him. It’s a series of uncomfortable phone calls, and while Hardy’s Locke is trying to do the right thing, he’s also trying to do the right thing — or at least a right thing — in the wake of having done a wrong thing. In the face of his admission that it was one night and one night only, his only transgression in 15 years, his wife rages at him: “The difference between Never and Once is a very big difference …”

At first, the model for Locke would seem to be a domestic-scaled of the very bad day Henry Hill is having at the end of Goodfellas — plates to juggle, obligations to meet, things to do and miles to go before he doesn’t sleep. But as Ivan Locke continues his drive — the past in his rear-view, often literally, and the future in front of him dark past a few dozen feet — he’s less inside a vehicle than he is inside the moment. While never stated explicitly in the film, concrete has to be poured within 60 to 90 minutes of its being mixed with water, or it’s useless; the ticking clock and urgency from that fact will, during Ivan’s ride, come to infect everything.”We have to come up with a practical next step,” Ivan keeps saying to his shattered wife, and you briefly wish that Knight had come up with some other metaphor for Ivan’s coolly solid, objective-oriented take on life; dealing with concrete and thinking of every concern as a problem to be solved feels a little too on-the-nose for the character’s journey.  Essentially, from its claustrophobic emotions and one-location setting as the characters talk of betrayal, love, responsibility and decisions made in the name of all three, Locke  resembles nothing less than Pinter via Bluetooth.

But, perhaps churlishly, allow me to note that it may be nothing more than Pinter via Bluetooth; even with Hardy’s magnetic performance and a river of traffic rolling him towards his fate, it is difficult to find anything especially cinematic in the film’s shooting and edits; you can imagine Locke as a live-theater piece remarkably easily, and perhaps too much so. Still, with Hardy given every tool to create a performance, he does so superbly and compellingly as his voice goes from calm discussion to a louder, hotter level. As the writer of Dirty Pretty Things and Eastern Promises, Knight’s written great films that put complex characters into our messy, complicated world, and Locke‘s attempt to do something smaller, more intimate and more traditionally dramatic marks, perhaps, more of a personal artistic triumph than it makes for a film. The road taken in Locke isn’t as brutal as Dante’s into hell, but what makes Knight and Hardy’s efforts truly affect the viewer is how firmly — and how swiftly — Ivan Locke falls into a real-world half-hell of his own making.