Wednesday, 14 May 2014

'Locked In?' Morality and Destiny in 'Locke'

            I recently had the veritable pleasure of watching Tom Hardy in a car doing an extended impression of Anthony Hopkins. Slightly unconvincing Welsh accents aside, Locke (dir. Steven Knight) was possibly the best film I’ve seen at the cinema all year, and Tom Hardy’s screen presence was engrossing, as was the simply beautiful cinematography. But, me being me, I did spend much of the film and the crème de menthe accompanied conversation afterwards considering the philosophical themes present.

            Hardy, who is the only character we see on screen, plays Ivan Locke, a ‘concrete farmer,’ a builder who specialises in laying foundations. He has just finished work the night before a major consignment of concrete is due to arrive, with which he is to lay the foundations for a new skyscraper. However, our hero made an error of judgement some months ago and got a woman named Bethen (voiced by the ever-delightful Olivia Colman in their phone conversations) pregnant. Trouble is, he already has a wife, and Bethen has just gone into premature labour before he is able to tell her what has happened. An interesting point of discussion might be whether-or-not he ever intended to tell her, we do only have his word on this, but perhaps we should leave that question to one side.

            Locke is one of the most fiercely moral characters I can recall ever seeing on the film screen. We might, perhaps, begin to think of the noble heroes of many fine and entertaining films, risking everything for the sake of right, but Ivan Locke is just a man, a normal man. He has a wife, a job and two kids. He has the air of the everyman about him. This is where his power as a character lies, his utterly ordinary life and personality mingled with an extraordinary sense of morality and duty.

            The film follows Locke’s conversations over the phone in his car, as well as slightly badly judged conversations with the imaginary ghost of his late father (these asides, though essential in many ways, could have been handled better in my humble opinion). Over the phone, he is simultaneously attempting to hold his family together while breaking to his wife the news of his sole infidelity (again, we only have his word for this but I am inclined to believe him…call me gullible), organising his work team to be in a position to deal with the approaching consignment of concrete, and reassuring the mother of his illegitimate child that he’ll be there as soon as he can be.

            And, in so doing, he more-or-less ruins his life. His wife tells him he isn’t welcome back home and, because he has abandoned them when they need him the most (it will be the largest non-military or nuclear concrete delivery in Europe), he gets the sack.

            I feel that there are two principle questions to be asked about the character of Locke:

1.      Is this a spontaneous ethical act or simply a reaction?

2.      Is this the right thing to do, and if so, why?

Originally, I was also going to address a third question, ‘Is Locke simply a narcissist?’ but, as this post has already trundled on past the 1,300 word mark, that might be left for another time.


            Throughout, Locke is struggling with freedom and destiny. We learn through his imaginary conversations with his father that he himself is illegitimate, that he was unwanted by his father (who he never even met until he was in his 20s). This begs the question- is Locke’s single-minded, uncompromising determination to see right by this woman and their child an authentic (used in the existential sense) act or is he just being propelled by the sins of his father? Or, more properly, by an overwhelming desire to prove to the world that he is not his father? He certainly makes a point of how much he wishes that he could show his father how unlike him he is, telling his wife that he is doing exactly the opposite of what his own father did, making sure that he is there to deal with his ‘fuck up,’ as he puts it. Wording it in such a way certainly suggests that he has little affection for the potential child, but having an appropriate emotional response is not the entirety of the ethical act.

            All this being said, however, we need not necessarily view Locke as simply reacting to the ghosts of his past, entirely motivated by outside agency (‘fallen’, to use Heidegger’s turn of phrase); rather, we can read his actions as being a transcendental ethical act, in which he risks everything to do the right thing because he has first-hand experience of how damaging doing wrong in this situation is. At one point he tells one of his co-workers about the importance of ensuring that the right kind of concrete is used in the foundation, as a flaw at the beginning of the structure will become a flaw with the whole thing: the parallels here ought to be obvious to the reader.


            Locke has found himself in an impossible position. His ethical duties are pulling him in a variety of different directions, and it is going to be a tremendous amount of work to satisfy the demands that the Good is making on him. He must, simultaneously, do right by: his wife, his unwanted child and his employers (perhaps, more properly, his co-workers). The most frequent ethical act we see Locke engaging in is his almost naïve honesty (he seems virtually unaware of the difference between telling his wife he had sex with another woman and telling her that it isn’t a road closure he’s arranging for work, but a ‘stop-and-go’!); he insists on telling people the truth to an almost absurd degree. For example, when Bethen asks him if he loves her he responds by saying ‘No, how can I? I don’t know you.’ Interestingly, he gives this same response when she asks if he hates her…

            Does he do the right thing?

            I would argue that what needs to be recognised is that he is in a situation where no action can satisfy all parties. Every course of action he can take is ultimately going to result in someone being harmed: if he goes home to watch the footy with his sons and wife, and goes to work the next day, he has let down a woman he did wrong by (though he frequently tells us that he only slept with her out of pity, itself an at least ethically ambiguous action) and a child he is responsible for. In this regard, the film resembles the often-marched-out thought experiments of moral philosophy lectures. ‘If pulling the lever dooms one man but saves three, ought I do it?’ The simplistic answer the baser Utilitarians offer us (although, I’m not sure I’ve ever met one who was entirely comfortable with answering such a question, which I personally take as a good sign for their ethical development) is that ‘Yes, in such a situation the right thing to do is to end the life of one to save the lives of many.’

            That we express discomfort at this formula is evidence enough that treating moral issues in such a simplistic way is at least an incomplete approach, or that it warrants further discussion if nothing else (I reiterate my point that I have doubts that any morally-healthy adult would be wholly comfortable with the ‘logical’ solution, but that opens a whole new can of philosophical worms…), though that is not say that the hedonic calculus ought never to be deployed. However, I fear we are digressing from the topic at hand. This is a glorified film review, not a Prolegomena to Any Future Moral Philosophy.

            I do not have an answer to the question ‘Does Locke do the right thing?’, and I don’t believe that an answer is actually available for that question. Morality is not a matter of reducing situations to easily quantifiable pleasure-pain ratios. That Locke causes more people immediate grief than he would if he had ignored Bethen is simply not the end of the story here (nor is it when we start talking about long-term felicity, the actions of the agent in the moment warrant the attention of the philosopher). There are moral demands made upon us by life, in all its sticky, smelly, messy ambiguity, than any single ethical theory is ever likely to render as a simple formula. Locke as a film might be spoken of as being about the impossibility of the purely ‘right’ action, and this is its philosophical interest and importance.


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