The notion of development is universal. Within each and every individual there is a story of personal trajectory—with the relentless passage of time all of our choices, accomplishments, and experiences stack upon one another in succession. Locke (2013), written and directed by Steven Knight, is a story about exactly that: personal development.
Knight nurtures this as the central motif of the film, delivering an intimate story that traces the development of the eponymous Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy), a prosperous construction foreman. Through his immaculately-kept beamer and yuppie getup (replete with button-down and knit sweater) we get whiffs of his accomplishment. Here is a man who’s got it, whatever “it” may be—a wife, two adoring children, and a well-paying job. One car journey and a smattering of phone calls later, he has none of these things.
Indeed, this is a story about development; the things we’ve made for ourselves, our trajectory, and just how easily these things can disintegrate. When Locke discovers a meaningless, one-night affair has resulted in a pregnancy, he travels from Birmingham to London in the dead of night to be present for the birth. He’s determined to be there for this child in a way that his own father was not for him, an absentee who appears—ironically—through his literal absence; an empty back seat with which Locke engages in several imaginary spats. So, for 90 minutes, we’re plunged into the nocturnal foreboding of the M6. We’re confined to Locke’s car as he navigates several sensitive phone calls, particularly with his wife, frantically toiling to prevent the domestic life which he has so doggedly developed from dissolving completely.
“His own psychological development prior to the beginning of the story has a large part in the trajectory of his destruction over the course of the film.”
Simultaneously juggling the single largest and most ambitious concrete pour in his entire career—the largest in history excluding military and nuclear compounds—and between uncomfortable phone calls with his wife and kids, Locke is tasked with salvaging the project under the threat of its disastrous failure. Mistakes are made, a colleague is drunk, and Locke’s decision to disappear to London without notice places just enough pressure on the project so as to almost dash the entire thing.
While seemingly tangential on the surface, the A-plot and B-plot of Locke are married by the theme of personal development. On one hand, our titular protagonist must prevent his domestic situation from falling apart at the seams. His choice to travel across the country for his child’s birth is his undoing. Yet, it is a choice informed by a moral framework, stemming from a once-absent father figure. His own psychological development prior to the beginning of the story has a large part in the trajectory of his destruction over the course of the film.
On the other hand, the B-plot is a sort of buttress which supports the A-plot thematically. The lofty and ambitious development of a skyscraper for which the impending concrete pour is in service parallels Locke’s personal development — much as his relationships with his wife and children are on the brink of collapse, so too is the project for which he has worked so assiduously. In his own words:
“No matter what the situation is, you can make it good – like with plaster and brick…you can take a situation and you can draw a circle around it, and find a way to work something out.”
Locke’s conduct as a construction foreman is a projection of his conduct towards his personal life. As an audience, we’re encouraged to measure these two concepts in tandem. And yet, on both a domestic and vocational level, he has reached an impasse.
“In the same sense that Locke projects his personal situation onto the formation of the skyscraper, the skyscraper itself is an analogue for his personal progress.”
Locke is conscious of this marriage between the construction project and his development as a character. In an impassioned, verbal wrestling match with a reluctant colleague, he says:
“Do it for the piece of sky we are stealing with our building! You do it for the air that will be displaced, and most of all, you do it for the fucking concrete. Because it is delicate as blood.”
His use of the word “blood” imbues this project with genealogy, as though he were referring to his own kin, his own ‘flesh and blood.’ What is genealogy if not the evidence of a person’s legacy, their trajectory stretched from one generation to the next, the sum of one’s progression? In this moment, Locke’s familial flesh and blood are hanging by a thread. His family ties are unravelling because of a single, fatal error. He has come face-to-face with the sheer precarity of all he has developed. The phrase “delicate as blood” thus takes on new meaning—his attitude towards the skyscraper is the projection of his own anxieties at just how easily one’s personal development can shatter under pressure.
The skyscraper, however, carries crucial meaning as an object of urban architecture. Scholar Sheldon Garon asserts that the world over, urbanisation constitutes one of the “essential features of modernity.” According to Saskia Sassen, urban modernity is the barometer of economic progress, while other scholars such as Evelyn Schulz lean more heavily into the progress of science. In either case, the skyscraper as the apotheosis of urbanisation is characterised by “progress”. In the same sense that Locke projects his personal situation onto the formation of the skyscraper, the skyscraper itself is an analogue for his personal progress by its association with modernity and urban development.
Knight uses the themes of urbanity and modernity to make a point about one’s individual trajectory. Much like personal development, urbanisation and modernisation are encumbered by setbacks. The principle of the skyscraper, and Locke’s part in its creation, is loaded with associations of the destruction of the old for the creation of the new. James Sanders states, in reference to modern urbanity, that “The new and modern must still march inevitably over the old and idiosyncratic.”
“Locke has lost his old family life and the prior fruits of his personal progress. In their wake, however, there exists the potential for something new, the path to further development for Locke as an individual.”
In order to ensure the success of the project, Locke is forced to play the game of equivalent exchange—by relinquishing his employment, the history of his vocational development, he secures the future of the construction. By the end of the film, Locke has lost his old family life and the prior fruits of his personal progress. In their wake, however, there exists the potential for something new, the path to further development for Locke as an individual. That is to say, the film ends with one last phone call – on the other end, we hear the wail of his newborn child. A new domestic situation for Locke to subsume and nurture, a new personal trajectory.
“When I left the site just over two hours ago, I had a job, a wife, a home…and now I have none of those things,” Locke claims. Yet, as he pulls into the hospital where his child awaits, there is the sense that he will be able to reclaim his own development from the ashes of what he has lost, much as a skyscraper may arise from the destruction of an old building. The camera, at long last, releases us from the stifling prison of Locke’s vehicle and turns towards the city. As we gaze upon the hotels, apartment complexes, etc., we are reminded—and in spite of Locke’s unemployment—that a glorious, new building will soon grace the skies of Birmingham. What we know of urban modernity thus keys us into a deeper meaning within Locke—development may stagnate or fall apart, but something can be salvaged from the wreckage.
Like the skyscraper, the motorway upon which the story takes place is a symbol of modernity, urbanity, and development. In this regard, architectural scholars Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown emphasise that the highway/motorway or strip is even more central than the skyscraper. The urban landscape of modern progress is a creature of “large open space, big scale, and high speed.” The automobile governs this landscape, and thus the motorway has become the cornerstone of urban modernity. Throughout the course of the film, Locke teeters on the breaking point of his personal development, and as he does so, he is literally situated upon the locus of development itself. Like the skyscraper, the theme of development on a metropolitan level is grafted onto the same theme as it exists on a personal level for Ivan Locke.
“The motorway is symbolic of Locke’s personal development by its association with modernity and development of the urban kind. On the other, it perfectly encapsulates the confusion and stagnation of his trajectory in the story.”
We cannot take this only at face value, though. If we believe that the strip is an analogue for Locke’s personal progress, we have to account for the fact that Locke’s trajectory is stagnant at this moment in time. He is at an impasse, a limbo of sorts, which is likewise reflected in the mise-en-scene of the motorway. As he drives through the night, shots of the surrounding road are frequently out-of-focus or bathed in darkness, blurry headlights disappearing and reappearing with little-to-no sense of direction or physical relation to Locke’s vehicle. The setting takes on the appearance of a purgatory, bewildering and anti-spatial, as difficult to navigate as the trajectory of Locke’s personal life on the precipice of its annihilation. The modern motorway is chaotic and paradoxical, as referred to by Venturi and Brown: “to turn left [the driver] must turn right…but the driver has no time to ponder paradoxical subtleties within a dangerous, sinuous maze.” The motorway is symbolic of Locke’s personal development by its association with modernity and development of the urban kind. On the other, it perfectly encapsulates the confusion and stagnation of his trajectory in the story.
Yet, Locke’s earlier mantra once again springs to mind. “No matter what the situation is, you can make it good.” Knight uses the icon of the motorway to imbue Locke’s trajectory with the chaos and unnavigability of the modern, urban landscape. Nevertheless, Locke pushes through this anti-spatial nightmare and arrives at his destination. He lost many things on the road, but there remains the potential to “make it good,” one way or another, as a child is born into the world. One cannot help but find optimism in this.
Locke’s journey is a microcosm of the pilgrimage every individual assumes for as long as they have autonomy, agency, and independence. Mistakes are made, trials and tribulations are encountered—but no matter what the situation is, you can make it good.