Call of Duty

illustration by Brianna AshbyWhen our family cat died, my parents sent me a text. A mass e-mail was the logical response to a close friend’s sudden hospitalization. My most recent job offer came through a Twitter DM. That-guy-from-high-school announced his divorce with a Facebook post. And just last week, an automated message comforted me in a dark moment: Everything is OK, dinner will be there in thirty minutes or less.

The Age of the Phone Call is dead. As a device, the phone is more important than ever —our past, present, and future available with a few buttonless clicks. But line-to-line conversation trembles on a plank’s edge, one step away from joining “paging,” “rewinding tapes,” and “burning mix CDs” in the watery graveyard of defunct technology. Though it’s hard to imagine phones losing their ability to make phone calls (does 911 have an app?), don’t underestimate the Silicon Valley think-tankers and venture capitalist enablers dedicated to making life simpler. In ten years, we’ll have a tough time remembering how we lived without [enter name-of-invention-that-ensures-we’ll-never-speak-to-one-another-ever-again here]. Life was so hard when we had to express ourselves to invisible interlocutors.

Anything lost from phone conversation’s slow death, the good and the bad, is eulogized in writer-director Steven Knight’s one-man drama, Locke. Chronicling the title character’s 90-minute highway drive from a construction site in Birmingham to a hospital in London, Knight’s film is a Bluetooth-enabled life bomb. As Locke (Tom Hardy) stews inside his 2012 BMW X5, he is hours away from the greatest accomplishment of his contractor career: pouring a cement foundation for the UK’s tallest skyscraper. But he’s not around to oversee the final preparations, sending his coworkers into a tizzy. No, Locke is en route to the city to aid a frantic woman in labor with his child, a one-night stand from nine months prior. At some point, when the time is right, he’ll tell his wife.

Locke is the Pinteresque answer to hands-free cell phones. Suffocating confines stress the nuance of dialogue, unique to phone calls. In face-to-face dialogue, personalities entangle, mannerisms complicate sentences, and subtext erupts. There is breathing space when two people are together in a room. Expression can fill silence.

Not over the phone. There’s no showing through a microphone. When Locke admits to his wife that his forgettable, drunken mistake resulted in a bastard child, he can’t drop to his knees and beg for mercy or somehow prove his regret runs deeper than a line. Words are his only hope, articulating emotion through the mobile ether. Knight allows us to see Hardy build up a defense for his adulterous actions. He plays Locke as calm, though noticeably crushed. Rational. There’s no rationality over the phone — Locke can’t go beyond the literal. Every apologetic call digs the husband’s grave deeper and deeper. His wife sobs on the other end. If only he could reach out and comfort her….

Knight is one of the creators behind the original Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, famous for its “Phone-a-Friend” lifeline. The game show’s ticking clock limited any search engine cheats—the person you called either knew it or not. Locke takes this notion to the next level. All the binders, paperwork, and blueprints in his office can’t help a bumbling underling prepare for the following day’s concrete pour. Locke needs to phone in with knowledge and confidence. This is not Google’s job just yet. Highly sophisticated artificial intelligence doesn’t have the bark to snap a peon out of a two-pint stupor, can’t consider the caustic personalities that will go off when a highly detailed parking plan doesn’t adhere to logic. Lifelines require a personal touch.

If it sounds dry as hell, it is. That’s part of Locke’s uphill battle. He can’t be there to loom over his coworkers, he has to inspire them with words. This he’s good at. Locke pairs detailed explanation with Walt Whitman-isms, that completing this pour means stealing the sky with their magnificent building. He screams at his second-in-command to stop praying for help:“You don’t trust God with fucking concrete.” They’re words that wouldn’t come out in a business e-mail. Locke blacksmiths his words with hammering inflection. This is why we talk on the phone, Knight tell us. To tap into our potential for spontaneity, provoke the poets within.

In Locke, expertly constructed theatrics transform the phone into a new object for every scene. It can be a weapon, Locke firing cannonballs into the UK bureaucracy all from the comfort of his luxury sedan; It can be an emergency kit, sedating his paranoid friend all the way through her turbulent pregnancy; Later, it’s a barrier for parental control, Locke keeping his wife’s break at bay by distracting his kids with football chitchat. With so many plates in the air, Knight taps the phone to show every side of his Regular Joe character. The writer-director proves that, when Alexander Graham Bell invented electromagnetic voice transmitter, he created the rawest form of communication the planet would ever see.

Locke doesn’t attempt tidy conclusions. The long road is still filled with streaked lights and automotive companions. But Locke is changed. Before he was an order-giver, a casual liar, a cold-hearted man outrunning a fear of being a cold-hearted man. He couldn’t keep the charade up in a series of phone calls. Alone with his voice, Locke became the best and the worst of himself. There was no more acting (a testament to everything Hardy does on screen). What’s lost when the phone call disappears? Ourselves, perhaps. “The cat died” is information in need of heart. A Facebook post avoids the pressure of saying it out loud. Mass e-mails are for no one. Placing a phone call can be painful, complex, revelatory, but as Knight discovers in Locke, it’s always full of humanity.


Matt Patches is a writer and reporter in New York whose work has been featured in Grantland, Vulture, Esquire, and VanityFair.com.