With Locke, the 2014 Sundance & 2013 Venice Film Festival selection now screening in select theaters, director Steven Knight (writer of Eastern Promises and Dirty Pretty Things) presents a narrative experiment most filmmakers would dare not attempt outside of the confines of film school. One location, one on-screen actor, and a real-time narrative composed almost entirely of conversations via telephone. Often such premises amount to mere gimmickry that end up stumbling on their own limitations and fail to provide the audience a narrative as satisfying as a traditional film. However, considering its self-imposed limitations, Locke is a rousing success: tense, compelling, emotional, and with more than enough drama to make the audience forget they are doing little more than staring at the face of the same actor for nearly ninety minutes. Locke provides an exceptional example for study by developing screenwriters simply because, by stripping away all extraneous elements, Locke puts front and center the raw skeleton that makes up an effective dramatic narrative.
The setup: Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy in a near one-man show) is a married father of two on the eve of the most important project of his professional career. Locke's single marital indiscretion comes back to haunt him when he learns that the child he fathered on the one-night stand seven months previous will be born that very night. Driven by a commitment to personal responsibility instilled by the memories of his own deadbeat father, Locke decides to drive straight to London, putting both his family and his career at risk, so he might be there when the child is born. On that eighty-five drive, Locke fights to keep his entire life from unraveling through an endless series of phone calls with his family, his work, and the mother of his new child.
Locke presents a noteworthy piece of storytelling in that by stripping itself of the extraneous elements found in most cinematic stories, it exposes the absolute essentials of a compelling cinematic narrative:
- An internally-conflicted character,
- a crisis,
- a commitment to a plan of action by the character in response to that crisis, and
- a constant supply of escalating hurdles the character must overcome to resolve the situation.
Structurally, the story executed through three narrative threads: a) Conversations to and from home in which Locke confesses his infidelity and fights to keep his marriage from falling apart. b) Conversations to and from his work partners in which Locke tries to make certain the construction project in which he has poured his heart and soul does not come to ruin. c) Conversations to and from the soon-to-be mother of his new child, a pitiful woman Locke does not love, yet feels accountable for.
These three threads intertwine to construct a single effective narrative for two reasons. First, all three threads revolve around the shared theme of personal responsibility.
Second, the execution of these threads collectively follow a simple and essential structural pattern that every screenwriter should recognize and emulate. To explain:
In my book Screenwriting Down to the Atoms, as well as in articles on this blog, I use a Frankenstein analogy to describe the story structure found in the traditional feature film, particularly as used in Acts 2A & 2B. (Read the original article HERE) In the first half of the story, the protagonist takes well-intended actions in an attempt to ameliorate the story problem, but in the process his or her actions only end up making the situation worse. The protagonist unwittingly creates a monster. (Or a “monstrous situation,” if that makes it easier.) At the story's midpoint, the monster comes to life, putting the protagonist's fate in far greater peril than it was before. In the second half of the story, the protagonist must fight back against that monster and defeat it if he or she ever hopes to rise above in the end and achieve the Story Goal.
Ivan Locke begins his story trying to do the right thing. He wants to act responsibly towards his wife, his job, and the mother of his new child. Of course, the reactions Locke receives from his actions could not be further from his ideal wishes. People react in ways that make the situation worse. Locke tries to respond, but this only triggers another reaction that aggravates things further. When watching the film, note that for every phone call Locke makes or receives, ONE thing (and one thing ONLY) is added to the mountain of sh*t Locke finds himself being buried under. This, my friends, is what we call escalation. In every good story, the story problem, as threatening as it may seem, seems fairly simple in the beginning. But then, as characters act and react, the problem grows and complicates into an increasingly monstrous situation. Finally, the weight of the mountain becomes too heavy for Locke to bear. He must become proactive and fight back. He must find a way out of sh*t mountain. But the monster he has created is a vicious beast, and continues to throw complication after complication Locke's way. To these complications, Locke must continue to summon all his strength and battle through. Though Locke does not receive a perfect happy ending, he is rewarded for his efforts with a personal victory that made his struggle against the monster worthwhile.
This is the same type of structure seen in any tense, well-plotted film. Every major event adds one more complication to the story situation, continually developing and escalating the original premise into an increasingly complex situation. The plot buries the protagonist under a mountain and then forces him or her to fight their way out. Through the simple method of one complication per phone call, Locke successfully produces a steadily-evolving and structurally sound narrative, creating compelling drama from the most confined of premises.