Steven Knight’s tidy film Locke has given me more to think about than any other recent movie.
It is the story of Ivan Locke, construction director for big buildings in the UK. It is the evening before millions of metric tons of concrete are to be poured in the foundation of a 53-story building, the biggest pour outside of nuclear reactors in European history.
Locke is in love with his buildings. He goes on at one point about how this one will be visible from twenty miles away and cast a shadow a mile long at sunset. He doesn’t work for his employer or for the money — he works for the building. He is a master of his profession. Give him a problem and he’ll solve it.
But now he faces a problem that’s a little harder to solve. It appears this quiet, organized man who loves his wife and sons has made a mistake and the consequences are going to be very painful. I’m not going to spoil the story by telling you what the mistake is. Let me assure you it’s nothing revolting like child molesting or even embezzlement. But it was a moral lapse.
Locke means to put things right, to whatever extent possible. He gets in his car and drives to London in an effort to do so. The entire movie takes place in his car and Tom Hardy, with his sleek beard and sleeker Welsh accent, is the only actor we see. All the dialogue is on the car phone.
Locke abandons the building and leaves the pour to his assistant, who is good at his own job but not up to the task. He has to explain to his wife why he’s not coming home. He has to face the wrath of his boss. But he’s made his decision. He’s not going to let the bad situation he’s caused get worse.
So what is this movie actually about? Honor. Locke is going to do the right thing even if his life crashes around his head.
Now, I am very suspicious of honor. As a student of the Civil War era, I’ve seen a lot of Southern pseudo-aristocratic honor, which is the honor of arrogant hypocrites who like to rape women.
I also think of honor killings in the Middle East. Cultures of honor are often cultures of collective shame and violent retribution. I know not all honor is like this, but let’s say honor has left a really bad taste in my mouth. (For a different view of honor, see Kirsti Minsaas’s review of the movie Rob Roy, for the Atlasphere.)
This film redeems the concept of honor for me. It redeems it for me because there is no pomp in Locke’s honor. He is just a rational man taking responsibility for his deeds. He’s basically an Objectivist with some emotional baggage. He speaks in terms of solving problems.
If he has a tragic blindness, it’s one perhaps some Objectivists would share with him: He believes every problem can be solved if you just “draw a circle around it.” The movie teaches him some powerful lessons on that subject. But he does not swerve from his course.
This is a thinking person’s movie. Look at the pun of the protagonist’s name: Ivan Locke. Ivan is Russian for John. Ivan Locke pours concrete. John Locke believed only concretes exist. And Ivan Locke is trying to hold up something like an implied social contract when he goes to right his wrong, echoing John Locke’s political concept.
The film came at a serendipitous time in my writing. I’m working on a book called Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life. During the last two or three days I have been writing about the nature of adult wonder, which I define as the virtue of choosing to be open to the world and not taking it for granted.
One of the examples I give is how I feel wonder at the operation of conscience in a man. (Think Oskar Schindler.) Ivan Locke gives us an impressive example of a man of conscience to wonder at, a man as solid as concrete, a demonstration that a tragic hero is still a hero.
Kurt Keefner is a teacher and writer. He is author of the forthcoming non-fiction book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life. You can visit his blog at kurtkeefner.com and browse his past Atlasphere columns through his directory profile.
10 comments from readers
You say at the end: "Ivan Locke gives us an impressive example of a man of conscience to wonder at, a man as solid as concrete, a demonstration that a tragic hero is still a hero." He is, indeed, "an impressive example of a man of conscience to wonder at," and Hardy's expressive yet controlled ability to convey this is one of the film's strong points.
I would add only a general point about that which makes Ivan a tragic hero, namely, his specific "emotional baggage" flaw. With respect to the tight parallel that the film maintains between the concrete/building and fundamental principles/character, it is precisely because Ivan is not quite as solid as the concrete he scrupulously insists on pouring (it must be C6 grade and nothing less) that he "cracks," thus causing the architecture of his life to fall down around him as he struggles to right his wrong (where he allowed a bit of C5 to get mixed in with the C6 of the rest of his principles).
I suspect a lot of people would say that his tragic flaw was his honesty. As Gareth, his boss, yelled, "Why didn't you just say you were sick?"
Can a virtue be a flaw? Or is it better to say that a great man can be undone by his virtue if he makes an earlier mistake? Another example of this would be Oedipus, who is undone by his desire to get to the bottom of Laius' death (a virtue) but only because of the hotheaded way he killed Laius in the first place. I may have to break out my copy of the Poetics and consult the Philosopher.
You ask about whether virtue can be a flaw. I don't think so, at least not on any Aristotelian-influenced account of ethics. Ivan's being truthful (a Kantian absolute rule/duty) to a company he later uses a four-letter word about is not the same as being honest (an Aristotelian virtue). His desire to "draw a circle around" problems and control/ignore the consequences (whether inanimate or animate beings) leads to the context-dropping of the former ethical approach. In a way, while Ivan is usually an honorable man, this film can been seen as showing the pitfalls of the false moral alternatives of utilitarianism and deontology--the false alternatives that can lead a soul to crack at the foundation.
I'm not sure I see Locke as acting on a deontological principle. Do you mean his "compulsive" truth telling? I just took that to be badly managed honesty. He put off telling an affected party about his misdeed until he had to do it by car phone, when it was bound to blow up in his face. If he had dealt with the underlying problems of his relationship with this person earlier and then told the truth, they might have salvaged the relationship.
Or maybe I'm missing your point. Could you explain how Locke is acting on a deontological principle? If you can't do it without spoilers, maybe we should continue this discussion by email. I do think, by the way, that we do agree that Locke has serious problems with integration.
A couple of conversations he had in the car (and I cannot go into more detail here on account of spoilers) reveal that he seems to have been emotionally disengaged in relation to people prior to his wrongdoing. That to me is a tip-off that he had been doing what he should have in relation to other people "for the sake of duty." His passion had always been reserved for the buildings that he helped to create, and whose precise measurements he could specify. Buildings he could control; people he could tenuously control when he could control them at all, and proper emotional connection to them seemed a bit elusive. That's more Kantian deontology and not really Aristotelian virtue ethics.
First, as in "The Fountainhead," a major plot element is the construction of a huge skyscraper. But perhaps less obviously, "Locke" called to mind Rand’s shrewd observation in her introduction to "Calumet K" that the history of literature contains many protagonists who are heroic but few who are efficacious. Where his work is concerned, Mr. Locke is efficacious in the extreme.
The device of the film being almost entirely confined to a single character and scene is daring and mostly works, though it does create some problems and limitations. Still, every Objectivist should see this ambitious little movie, with its fine performance by Tom Hardy.
I wondered if Rand was an influence for the writer-director, but an Internet search turned up no connections.
Good catch on Calumet K. I think Locke is amazing not only for showing what makes Ivan Locke an efficacious man, but for showing us his limitations as well. And although we don't know how he'll do it, it seems certain that he'll salvage some part of his life.
If you want another story about an efficacious hero, you might try this: http://www.theatlasphere.com/columns/130729-keefner-north-and-south.php