Written and directed by Steven Knight
Starring: Tom Hardy
The car has become the carapace, the protective and aggressive shell, of urban and suburban man," said Marshall McLuhan, producing an idea that links two refreshingly idiosyncratic films from Britain, both released this week.
Locke, the more sleek and more conventionally well-engineered of the two, is a one-man show starring actor Tom Hardy as a Welsh construction-site manager making a journey into unknown emotional territory in his BMW sedan on an English motorway. Under The Skin, directed by Jonathan Glazer and based on Michel Faber's 2000 novel, is more stripped down and strange. It stars Scarlett Johansson as an alien serial killer driving about Scotland in a van, preying on male hitchhikers. Both films feature characters who spend most of their time driving in stories that explore the fault lines between consciousness and the physical shells we inhabit.
Let's start with Locke, because, frankly, it's more straightforward – the entire 85-minute film takes place on a night drive from Birmingham to London. It features one onscreen character, played by Hardy, who is best known for his roles in The Dark Knight Rises and Inception. The combination of Hardy's almost androgynous features and powerful physique evokes a young Marlon Brando, and while it's premature to say he has a talent to match, he has emerged as one of the screen's most versatile and compelling presences. Locke is what you might call his sedentary tour de force.
Hardy's character's name, Ivan Locke, evokes the empiricist philosopher John Locke, or in a more casual sense, a man who believes he has everything locked down. Ivan's a construction-site supervisor, and the entire movie consists of Bluetooth phone conversations he has as he juggles a series of personal and professional crises. His first call is to leave a message about a cement delivery, for the 5 a.m. start of a project that's described as the biggest pour in Europe, outside of a military facility. Only, Locke won't be showing up, because he's on his way to London to be with a woman named Bethan (voiced by Olivia Colman) who's in labour with his baby. And he has to tell his wife, Katrina (Ruth Wilson) about his infidelity and the consequences.
All this is laid out in the first 15 minutes or so of the movie, after which you think: killer overture. Now how are they going to spoil it? But Locke keeps spinning nicely as the phone calls keep coming. The conversations include with his wife and sons, with his Irish foreman, Donal (Andrew Scott), who he is trying to walk through the preparations for the next day.
Where you might expect a fender bender, a stop at a gas station, or a radio report to interrupt the flow, director Steven Knight sticks stringently to his few elements. There are a few camera angles, most in medium close-up of Hardy's face, and a constant flurry of anxious phone calls. Occasionally, Ivan looks into the rear-view mirror, when he addresses his dead and deadbeat dad, the source of the weakness in himself he has tried all his life to expunge or repress. All the illusion of control was shattered with one night and a couple of bottles of wine, when his body subverted his will and he slept with Bethan, a woman, he tells his wife, who is "quite old – 43 or something," and whom he insists he does not love all.
"I have behaved not at all like myself," he tells his wife who, not surprisingly, is not consoled.
Writer-director Knight, who provided the screenplays for Stephen Frears's Dirty Pretty Things and David Cronenberg's Eastern Promises, has said he chose Ivan's Welsh accent (you'll recognize the clipped musicality of Anthony Hopkins's speech rhythms) to signal that Ivan is working-class, without sacrificing clarity for the mainstream-movie audience. Ivan has climbed high, not only with his beemer, but the "piece of the sky we are stealing," with their high-rise tower, but there's a fault in his material, which is causing the edifice to crack.
This story of a man in a car watching his domestic life collapse against a backdrop of precarious edifices with global financing is familiar. It has a lot in common with Don DeLillo's novel Cosmopolis, made into a 2013 movie by Cronenberg, but in a less arch, more audience-friendly form.
Knight's strength is his writing, and arguably, Locke would be almost as good set on a stage with a man sitting on a chair. But then you'd miss the details of Hardy's face in a film that is all about an actor's vehicle.
Under the Skin
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Written by Jonathan Glazer and Walter Campbell
Starring: Scarlett Johansson
Another pillow-lipped star and a different kind of driving mission characterize Under the Skin, a sporadically brilliant but ultimately numbing film from Glazer, whose memorable previous features include 2001's Sexy Beast and 2005's Birth. Glazer has stripped away most of the backstory and satirical themes of Michel Faber's 2000 the novel about a female alien in human form who drives along Scotland's A9 to pick up male hitchhikers for consumption as delicacies. The story is little more than a framework for provocative psycho-sexual imagery: We begin with a white circle of light that morphs into a human eye, a motorcyclist carrying a woman's body, and the opening sequence wherein Johansson, as an unnamed alien, begins naked and enters our world by taking the clothes from the corpse and putting them on herself.
Some time later, the alien character enters a Glasgow shopping mall and acquires a fake fur jacket for a new working-class sexpot ensemble: low-cut pink sweater, fake fur, tight jeans and stiletto heels. Suitably armoured, she goes on the hunt, driving around in a white van, asking strange men directions in her English accent. The van scenes, apparently, were shot with hidden cameras with unsuspecting real-life men, who later signed a release, and evidently don't recognize Scar-Jo under her shaggy black wig.
Later, some of the men she meets are invited to go to empty houses with her, where they undress. As the men walk toward her, they slowly sink, as if falling in invisible quicksand. What becomes of these men is only hinted at: skin lifting from a body like a Dali painting; a conveyor belt carrying blood pulp, in scenes that take place in black, glassy, unfurnished rooms.
All this is initially fascinating, and then progressively less so. The problem is the usual serial-killer issue – things, no matter how weird and kinky, get repetitive. But, gradually, there is some progress in our alien's meandering drives and captures: she develops empathy for her victims. From the film's most heartless moment, when she kills a man and leaves a toddler crying on the beach. Later, though, she has improved to the stage where she picks up a man with a severe facial deformity and actually lets him live. She begins to care for these humans. She even tries human food, but barfs up her slice of Black Forest cake at a family restaurant. Later, she even tries making love, but discovers she's not properly equipped for that either. In any case, But empathy in the human world means vulnerability, and savagery follows.
What lingers about Under the Skin, like a sharp odour, is its bracing misanthropy. With a soundtrack that buzzes with incoherent babbling voices sounding like insect swarms, this is a far cry from Wordsworth's "still, sad music of humanity." In scenes among drunken working-class nightclub revellers, or homely shoppers crowding a mall's makeup counter, the human species looks, at best, pitiable. Only the vistas of the Scottish landscape and mist-swept highways offer a poor alien a reason to live in our world.