Honor in the concrete

Original
On the surface, Locke writer-director Stephen Knight has given us a minimalist movie about a man, his car, and his mobile device. For 85 minutes we watch a man who pours concrete for a living, driving alone in his car and talking on the phone. On a deeper level, however, this is a movie about something subtle and important: The role of honor.
Kurt-keefner

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.

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.

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 film redeems the concept of honor for me, because there is no pomp in Locke’s honor. He is just a rational man taking responsibility for his deeds.

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  

To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.
Small
Great, concise review that gets at the essentials, Kurt. Thank you, as always, for sharing your perceptive insights. Your review moved me to take a break from work (which is NOT an easy thing for someone to inspire in me!) to go see "Locke" yesterday. Wow, this one will have me thinking for a while in many ways, and will figure centrally as a sustained example to analyze in an upcoming philosophy paper I'll be writing and delivering.

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).
Small
Tragic flaws are a tricky thing, aren't they, Carrie-Ann? Is Locke's tragic flaw the mistake he made? or is it thinking he can control situations? Perhaps he thought he could control the situation in which he made the mistake in the first place. No doubt his mistake was not entirely born of pity as he suggests, but out of other feelings that seeped out of his over-controlled soul.

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.
Small
Yes, Kurt, tragic flaws are tricky and they vary from person to person. Locke's tragic flaw, I think, emerges in part from not having dealt properly with the trauma/anger surrounding his relationship with his father. In addition, his desire to control everything--including managing, or trying to manage, other people and himself--is the emotional flip-side of that out-of-control anger. That combination skews his moral judgment abilities, so that when [SPOILER] arises, he [SPOILER] on account of confusing "the nice" (pity) with "the good" (compassion).

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.
Small
One more quick thought... With respect to Oedipus, I thought that his tragic flaw was his hubris in thinking that he could elude his fate by leaving his home, sure that this would prevent him from killing his father and marrying his mother. Of course, leaving home--along then with a combination of temper and arrogance--are his undoing. It reminds me of the parable of "Death in Tehran."
Small
Interesting, I didn't know the parable as "Death in Tehran" but as "Appointment in Samarra," which is also the name of a John O'Hara novel.

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.
Small
What I mean by Locke's having been deontological is that before his one big mistake, he had scrupulously performed all of his duties in every realm, so that everyone could count on him as extremely dependable. Being deontological existed way before his wrongdoing. It was the crack in his ability to maintain self-control that led to the deception by omission and then the sudden rush of truth-telling-by-distance. As you say, he definitely had disintegration issues.

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.
Small
One more thought, lest it sound like I'm not giving Ivan and the film sufficient credit for parallels to Rand's work. I see Ivan's reverence for his work and his integrity concerning his buildings to be similar to Roark's love for his work and buildings (though each has a different role to play in the creation/construction of buildings, since Ivan is a foreman and Roark is an architect). However, when it comes to relating to other people, Ivan's approach is not really a virtue ethical one, but primarily duty-based (with the problematic unintegrated emotional element that is at the root of his difficulties).
Small
Nice review, with which I agree. I saw the film several weeks ago and also was immediately struck by the parallels with the work of Ayn Rand.

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.



Small
Hi Don,

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

Enjoy!
Photo-not-provided
What a boring waste of the film medium. This should have been an audio or written short story.
To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.