The Social Network (2010)

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Over the past couple of decades, the film industry seems to have become seriously enamored of a certain type of movie: namely, the fact-based historical drama or biopic. You can understand the instinct; ‘based on a true story’ has always been a reliable draw for audiences, and human history is full of wild and compelling stories that deserve to be retold on the big screen. But recently, Hollywood has gone distinctly overboard, setting out to dramatize and monetize every halfway interesting bit of recent history—and I mean very, very recent, to the point that it often feels barely removed from the current news cycle. Remember the Chilean mining disaster in 2010, when those guys were trapped underground for months and then finally rescued? Within five years, there was a movie about it, nicely inspirational but fairly straightforward and predictable. Barely one year after that youth soccer team was rescued from the flooded cave in Thailand, there was a similarly formulaic Thai movie about it, and Ron Howard is currently gearing up to make the American version. It’s not that such movies can’t be good, or even great—think of Dog Day Afternoon (1975), an all-time classic made only a few years after the incident it dramatizes. More recently, Bombshell (2019), about journalists fighting back against the culture of sexism at Fox News, was highly relevant in the MeToo era, well received by critics, and nominated for many awards. And yet, when I saw the trailer, a part of me rolled my eyes—another ‘historical’ drama made barely three years after the fact; portraying famous people who are not only still alive, but still in the middle of the same careers shown in the movie; commenting on a social movement that’s still very much ongoing and unresolved… It was clearly a compelling story, but why so soon? Again, I understand the impulse, both creatively and financially: these are interesting stories, largely pre-written, and Hollywood wants to cash in while they’re still in the public consciousness. But I find it slightly annoying, to say the least. (I give it two years, tops, before the big Oscar-bait dramas about the Mueller investigation start showing up.)

And I doubt I was the only one who reacted similarly when The Social Network came out in 2010, a mere six years removed from its story about the founding of the now-ubiquitous social media platform Facebook. Oh great, I thought, we’re already doing the ‘rousing origin story’ thing about Facebook, an innovation that’s not even particularly impressive or consequential, etc., etc… But I turned out to be wrong in pretty much every respect. This is, and always will be, one of the defining films of the 21st century. It’s masterfully executed across the board—about as close to perfectly made as a movie can be—but also emotionally resonant to a surprising degree, and still endlessly thought-provoking. That last point is especially remarkable; the story of Facebook has seen some significant developments in the past ten years, and it would seem impossible for any pre-2016 movie about it, in particular, not to feel quite dated today. And yet The Social Network is, if anything, even more interesting now than it was in 2010, owing both to its impressive prescience about many issues that have only grown more urgent, and to its keen understanding of the timeless struggles and themes at the core of the story.

In retrospect, it should have been no surprise that the movie turned out so well, given the director, David Fincher, and the screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin. Both are masters of their respective crafts, and The Social Network is arguably the best work either man has ever done. Which is saying something; Sorkin, for his part, has been a prolific and exalted writer for over 30 years. He wrote the stage play A Few Good Men (1989) and its 1992 film adaptation, as well as witty, wordy movies like The American President (1995), Moneyball (2008), and Steve Jobs (2015). He’s been even more of a doggedly high-performing workhorse in TV, creating The West Wing (1999-2006) and writing practically every episode of its first four seasons, and playing a similar creator/chief writer role for the entire runs of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (2006-2007) and The Newsroom (2012-2014). And that’s not even the full extent of his remarkable career.

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The setting and subject matter has varied, but Sorkin’s writing has always been peerlessly distinctive, defined by fast-paced, densely layered, and endlessly inventive conversation between intelligent, hyper-articulate characters. As David Denby writes, “His adrenaline-pumped men and women anticipate one another’s best shots; they fill out or overturn one another’s half-finished sentences, answering what’s implied rather than simply what’s said.”[i] His dialogue can’t exactly be called realistic—real people simply don’t speak so quickly, in such cleverly coherent sentences, and with such command of relevant facts and references—but coming from skilled performers, it’s so exhilarating to listen to that this hardly matters. It’s a joy to hear language so skillfully deployed, and anyway, true realism has never been Sorkin’s goal; he harnesses the full potential of the spoken word as a narrative tool, expressing far more about the characters, the themes, and the subjects informing the story than he ever could if the dialogue were more strictly naturalistic. And at the same time, he’s adept at striking a fine balance between cleverness and accessibility. As rich as the dialogue in The Social Network is, it consists mostly of words that are not only understandable, but common in everyday usage—the artistry lies in how they’re arranged. Indeed, some of the most riveting lines, the resounding punctuation marks that finish off elaborate verbal exchanges with a flourish, are plain and direct, the kinds of sentences any normal person might say: “It’ll be because you’re an asshole.” “Oops.” “Go home, Sean.” On two different occasions, it’s a simple, heavily loaded “No.”

This whole screenplay finds Sorkin in peak form. He’s one of the few working screenwriters who can create the gripping energy of a thriller through words alone—a talent perfectly suited to a story centered on esoteric, largely abstract concepts like computer programming, complex business dealings, and the rarefied social structures of elite American universities. And it’s not just a series of great scenes; Sorkin reworks the facts into a classical narrative of ambition (more on that later), while also making deft use of an intricate, multi-layered structure. The script jumps between Mark Zuckerberg and his cohorts creating Facebook in 2004, and two separate legal depositions a few years later, one with the Winklevoss twins and Divya Narendra suing him for intellectual property theft, and one with his former business partner and best friend, Eduardo Saverin, suing him for being unfairly cut out of the company. That could have been a mess, but the three storylines are so intuitively intertwined that it’s never confusing; instead, we can appreciate the way the depositions often function like incisive running commentary on the main story, sometimes to the point that there seems to be a sort of meta-dialogue between the different settings—all contributing to the movie’s emotional and thematic depth, and its relentless sense of narrative momentum.

This is clearly exemplified in the celebrated opening scene. In broad strokes, it’s straightforward: two college students sit in a bar and talk, then argue, and finally break up. But so much is being communicated, between the characters and from them to us, both above and below the surface. The dialogue (which begins even before the opening logo fades out) is captivating in the typical Sorkin way: plentiful and dazzling, zipping around in unexpected directions, with a rapid, rhythmic quality to it that inexorably draws us in. But it’s also tightly focused; tangents and turns of phrase that seem like little more than fun verbal flourishes turn out to have narrative and thematic significance by the end. It seamlessly conveys a great deal of exposition about the physical setting, the social context, and the characters—all crucial to understanding the story to come. Even as they navigate the rapid-fire dialogue, Rooney Mara establishes Erica as a normal, good-natured young woman, and Jesse Eisenberg gives a sense of Mark’s formidable intelligence, cringey social ineptitude, and obsessive desire to belong to the in-crowd; she keeps trying to introduce some levity into the scene, to make it more like a normal conversation, while his every attempt to repair the damage only succeeds in driving her further away. The progressive deterioration of the relationship is clearly perceptible beneath the surface, even as the dialogue rarely engages with it directly.

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And then there’s David Fincher’s direction, which is less noticeable but equally crucial to the scene’s success. He shoots it in a straightforward manner: static tripod shots, no particularly unusual framing, and a color palette that’s richly evocative without drawing attention to itself. This keeps our focus on the faces of the characters and what they’re saying, as it should—that’s where the action is in this scene, and it’s so fast-paced that even a minor distraction would be hard for the audience to handle. At the same time, though, Fincher assembles these simple images with immaculate precision, deftly directing our perception of the scene. He includes wide shots only very briefly: at the beginning, middle, and end, just enough to clarify where we are and what’s happening. Otherwise, Mark and Erica are never together in the frame, which emphasizes the widening gulf between them, and Fincher mostly keeps them at medium distance, cutting to close-ups only for the most important and consequential lines, nudging us pay special attention to them. Fincher’s carefully considered filmmaking does just as much as Sorkin’s carefully considered words to make this straightforward scene thrilling to watch—and to make the themes, subtext and unspoken implications apparent and compelling.

The qualities on display here and throughout The Social Network—the careful camerawork, the subtly vibrant colors, the meticulous attention to details of all kinds—are characteristic of Fincher’s unique and impressive career. He’s a self-taught filmmaker, to the extent that anyone can be; raised in Denver, Oregon, and Northern California, he never went to film school, or college of any kind. He started out at age seventeen as a camera operator, and worked his way up through the special effects department (including on Return of the Jedi and Temple of Doom!) to music videos (for Aerosmith, George Michael, and Madonna, among others), and finally to his own features, beginning with Alien 3 (1992, largely as a director-for-hire) and Seven (1995), which is generally regarded as the first true Fincher film. He’s an all-time great craftsman of cinema, nearly unparalleled in his ability to bring his own idiosyncratic style to the screen. As we’ve mentioned, he has an old-school affinity for static, precisely framed shots, and a finely-honed ability to construct dynamic sequences almost entirely from such simple images.[ii] He uses CGI quite extensively, but usually in ways so subtle and seamless that you barely notice it, or else quickly forget about it as it blends into the texture of the movie: fastidiously recreating 1970s San Francisco in Zodiac (2007), aging and de-aging Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), or, in The Social Network, contriving to have both Winklevoss twins effectively played by one actor, Armie Hammer—along with Josh Pence in a thankless but essential role as a body double. And as partial as Fincher is to static frames, he also makes wickedly effective use of the moving camera, matching it with the movements of the actors so precisely that it creates a subconsciously hypnotic effect, drawing you in to an almost uncomfortable degree; as the brilliant Nerdwriter1 puts it, he “hijacks your eyes.”[iii] Given all this, it’s not surprising that Fincher is a legendary (and occasionally infamous) perfectionist, frequently demanding multiple dozens of takes to get exactly what he wants from the camera and the actors. (That opening scene in the bar took a mind-boggling ninety-nine takes before Fincher was satisfied.) His formidable talent enhances The Social Network at every turn, as it would pretty much any story he might choose to film.

This particular story, however, is an especially good fit for Fincher’s style, just as it is for Sorkin’s. As many critics have noted, Fincher has a creative affinity for outcasts and rebels, as well as a fascination with the darker, more sinister aspects of human nature. But while a distinctive aesthetic is a great strength for any artist, it can also be, if not exactly a weakness, then something of a stumbling block. Fincher’s technical prowess, combined with disturbing subject matter and a misanthropic worldview that can sometimes equate bleakness and shock value with profundity, results in movies that get under your skin in a way few others do. That’s very impressive, but it’s entirely possible to find yourself admiring Fincher’s craft without finding the movie particularly enjoyable. As objectively good as Seven, Zodiac, and his English-language remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are, I don’t have much desire to watch any of them again. And it’s not always clear-cut one way or the other; you could make an equal case for Fight Club (1999) as a juvenile manifesto of straight white male grievance, or as a biting satire of that same idea. (I like Fight Club a lot, just not in the same way I did when I was seventeen.)

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Sorkin, meanwhile, has some weaknesses of his own. Women in his screenplays, smart and articulate as they are, often end up dependent on approval, guidance, or validation from the men in their life to fully grow and develop as characters. (This was a notable issue in his 2017 directorial debut, Molly’s Game, though by no means a crippling one.) And he can be slightly overindulgent with his dialogue; occasionally, he’ll let himself get a bit too clever, draw out a witty exchange one quip too far—so that it all suddenly feels too cute by a few degrees, if that makes any sense. Take this exchange from The Newsroom (it’s not the best example, but Sorkin has written a lot, and for some reason, this is the one I remember). News anchor Will McAvoy is talking with his boss, Charlie Skinner, about how movements on the far left and right influence the moderate political establishments…

WILL: Bob Bennett, the most conservative member of the Senate, is going to lose is primary race to a guy named Mike Lee, because Lee found room to the right of Bennett.

CHARLIE: You wouldn’t think that was possible.

WILL: Back in 1968, when Randy Davis and Hayden and their guys organized the SDS, it was specifically to end the Vietnam War—but that movement got eaten by Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin and the Yippies.

CHARLIE: Hoffman and Rubin were a lot more charismatic.

WILL: Yeah, but it was impossible to define what the Yippies were protesting; they were about giving the finger to anyone over 30, generically hating the American establishment, dropping out and getting high.

CHARLIE: And?

WILL: That’s how the progressive movement would be painted for the next 40 years: people passing out daisies to soldiers and trying to levitate the Pentagon.

CHARLIE: I was there; that damn near worked.

WILL: No it didn’t; the Pentagon’s a really big building, you can’t levitate it.

CHARLIE: How is there room to the right of Bob Bennett?

…And it so on from there. It’s objectively good writing, and of course everyone’s tastes are different, but for me, that last rejoinder by Will is a bit too much—a joke that doesn’t really add anything else to the dialogue, registering instead as cleverness for its own sake.

To be clear, these are all very minor quibbles. Both men are still undisputed masters of their respective crafts, among the best in the world at what they do. Sorkin has never written a bad script, and Fincher has never made a bad movie. But The Social Network is a rare, remarkable instance of two great artists making each other even better through collaboration. Their aesthetics are quite different, but that turns out to be a good thing, because each ends up modulating the other’s worst instincts. This is still a Fincher film, so it’s still dark, ominous and cynical, but no one will be getting stabbed to death in lurid detail or finding their wife’s head in a box. Women are not a major presence in the story, but Erica, at least, cuts against some of Sorkin’s vexing tendencies. And while there’s plenty of classic Sorkin back-and-forth here (Responding to skepticism about the potential value of Facebook: “Sir, I honestly don’t think you’re in any position to make that call!” “I was the U.S. Treasury Secretary. I’m in some position to make that call.”), Fincher will never make a movie with dialogue could be dismissed as ‘too cute.’ With his exacting style, Fincher adds all sorts of subtle cinematic touches that deepen the movie’s impact, and extracts the sharpest possible performance of the dialogue from his talented cast. With his great command of the medium, he handles the tricky narrative structure with confidence; the work by him and his longtime editors, Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter, is just as important as Sorkin’s in ensuring that the story flows smoothly and with such terrific momentum. Meanwhile, Sorkin gives Fincher the best script he’s ever had to work with, and reveals in him comedic chops that, for all his impish tendencies, he hasn’t really shown before—none of his other films are likely to feature a comic stage-fall, or a character proclaiming, “I’m 6’5”, 220 and there’s two of me!” The creative partnership makes both Fincher and Sorkin better, and the result is the best work either of them has ever done.

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And yet, as impeccably crafted as The Social Network is, that alone doesn’t explain why it resonates so deeply, why it feels so richly emblematic of its time and place. That’s a tricky question, because, as many people have pointed out, it’s not exactly an accurate retelling of the rise of Facebook. But it seems clear that that’s not what Fincher and Sorkin are after; instead, they use the facts as a jumping-off point to construct a more familiar narrative about ambition, about the meteoric rise and the ultimate emptiness of success, in the same (general) mold of Citizen Kane and many other venerated, classically American stories. The real-life figures are recast as fictional characters who fit, to varying degrees, into archetypes typical of these sorts of stories. Mark has elements of the eccentric, socially inept genius, the scrappy outsider aspiring to the inner circles of entrenched wealth and power, and the striving capitalist corrupted by an addiction to ever-increasing dominance. Eduardo is the loyal friend who gets left behind, and the loyal partner, crucial to the early success and eventually sacrificed in the name of further advancement. Dustin Moskovitz, a major player in the actual founding of Facebook, is the easygoing comic relief. The movie version of Sean Parker is the smooth-talking huckster eager for a piece of the action, and the wild-card, hard-partying bad boy nursing a grudge against the ‘respectable’ society that rejected him. The Winklevosses, on the other hand, are classic emissaries of the entitled elite: effortlessly self-confident and complacent, haughty and condescending in ways they may not even be fully aware of. And Erica is akin to Charles Foster Kane’s Rosebud—an idealized, tragically lost symbol of wholesome fulfillment that fuels the drive for success, and that no amount of wealth or power can ever replace.

You can understand why the real-life people in question might be angry about this; as articulate as the characters are and as gripping as their story is, most of them are not, in the end, portrayed in a particularly flattering light. The movie doesn’t actually show any text claiming to be ‘based on a true story,’ and Fincher and Sorkin probably could have avoided most of the controversy simply by changing the relevant names, positioning it unequivocally as fiction. That they didn’t do so is no surprise; it’s typical of Sorkin to freely interweave fiction with the historical record, and typical of Fincher to not give a rat’s ass about the bruised egos of a bunch of super-rich public figures. And creatively, it was the right decision; the movie’s departures from strict accuracy all contribute to the emotional impact and thematic import of the story, while the fact that it’s clearly taking place our own world makes the impact that much greater, and the insights that much more thought-provoking.

The real Mark Zuckerberg, for example, was keen to point out to anyone who’d listen that he had no interest in joining Harvard’s elite ‘final clubs,’ and had already met his future wife when he created Facebook. So okay, that opening scene in the bar never happened, and maybe he wasn’t driven by rejection from the opposite sex, or obsession with gaining access to an exclusive social group and jealous resentment of a friend who did. But the story of Facebook’s founding is infinitely more interesting as an exploration of these timeless, universally relatable human emotions—struggles are central to both the addictive appeal and the sinister ramifications of Facebook and other social media: the longing for social and romantic status, the primal need to be desired, to feel we belong, and to prove wrong those who dismissed and rejected us. No, people probably weren’t actually passing notes in a Harvard computer science class in 2004, but that scene vividly and concisely conveys the anguish of being ostracized in the world of college, where social status is so desperately important. No, parties at the Phoenix club are probably not the orgies of entitled debauchery that we see in the movie, and maybe the Winklevoss twins aren’t really so arrogant and attached to outdated social codes, but their portrayal says a lot about the persistent role of class in American society—the inborn self-assurance and materially better lives enjoyed by those at the top, and the way they instinctively look down on outsiders and resist any challenge to, or intrusion upon, their privileged position. The Winklevosses have a pretty convincing case for intellectual property theft, but we also nod along with Mark’s assertion that they’re really suing him “because for once in their lives, things didn’t turn out the way they were supposed to for them.”

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Maybe the real Eduardo Saverin wasn’t so innocent and naïve, or so blameless in his dishonorable discharge from Facebook. But as portrayed here, his character arc offers a time-honored tale of friendship and betrayal, and a compelling exploration of what modern capitalism does to people—the ruthlessness and ruined relationships that even the glittering successes always seem to leave in their wake. In an intriguing wrinkle, Mark and Sean both seem to have genuinely better business instincts than Eduardo, and yet the movie’s most memorably heartbreaking line comes from him, a poignant distillation of the emotional cost of success in an enterprise meant to improve social life: “I was your only friend. You had one friend.”

Sean Parker, for his part, is probably the character furthest removed from his real-life counterpart,[iv] but he’s central to the movie’s exploration of issues that have only grown thornier and more relevant in the years since its release. Sean embodies the maxim that what drives the true ‘winners’ of contemporary American capitalism is not financial success, but a savage, deeply personal, and ultimately destructive version of all-out competition. His primary drive is not to make money—he, like most everyone else in the movie, is already rich, and will only get richer—but to screw over the business world that, as he sees it, screwed him. And this, far more than the girls and the parties, is what draws Mark to Sean, because it’s driving Mark, too; even when he gains the capacity to live large like Sean, he chooses not to, just as he doesn’t use his newfound resources and stature to force his way into the traditional aristocracy, but to tear it down and make it irrelevant. Meanwhile, for all of Sean’s ridiculousness, he’s shown to be shrewdly perceptive about people, and the ways the internet will affect their lives. (His paranoid declaration about the death of online privacy—“Whatever it is that’s gonna trip you up, you’ve done already”—is almost eerily prescient today.) His combination of paranoia and exuberant wonder at the age we’re living in is crucial one of The Social Network’s great strengths: although it begins long after the digital infrastructure has been established, and doesn’t actually show much of Facebook the website, the movie captures better than just about any other what a radical development the internet has been in society—the ways it has amplified, transformed, and confused so many timeless aspects of the human experience, from privacy to social structures to the consumption of information, and everything in between.[v]

No, the founding of Facebook probably didn’t happen this way. But The Social Network is the kind of sharp, insightful fiction that will be as valuable to future historians, and anyone else who wants to better understand this moment, as a hundred primary sources. And in the meantime, it’s still a remarkable achievement: a gripping thriller, with emotional depth and stakes that feel like life or death, about some college kids making a website.

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© Harrison Swan, 2020

[i] This long, in-depth review is wonderfully informative about many aspects of the movie, not just Sorkin’s writing: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/10/04/influencing-people

[ii] Tony Zhou, of the great YouTube channel Every Frame a Painting, breaks down this and other aspects of Fincher’s exceptional craft in this illuminating video essay: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPAloq5MCUA

[iii] Another terrifically insightful video essay, which explores how and why Fincher does this in greater detail: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GfqD5WqChUY

[iv] The real Parker was a pretty good sport about it, praising the movie overall and remarking that, while the portrayal of him was inaccurate, “it’s hard to complain about being played by a sex symbol.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sean_Parker)

[v] I wasn’t able to work their words directly into this article, but I also found these reviews very  incisive and helpful.

From Ty Burr at the Boston Globe: http://archive.boston.com/ae/movies/articles/2010/09/30/the_social_network_pokes_into_facebook_founders_tangled_web/?page=full

From Manohla Dargis at the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/24/movies/24nyffsocial.html?ref=movies

And from Sean Fennessy and Chris Ryan at Grantland: http://grantland.com/hollywood-prospectus/david-fincher-career-arc-gone-girl-zodiac-social-network-dragon-tattoo-benjamin-button-genre/

Locke (2013)

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What makes a movie? What are the essential component parts of every story we see onscreen? That’s a silly question, of course, the answer so basic that it’s almost difficult to come up with. I mean, ok: I guess there will be an assortment of characters, portrayed by various actors. Through dialogue and action, they’ll perform the story, in various places and at various times as the plot demands. There will be various camera angles, hopefully with some striking images among them, edited together with a musical score and sound design to steer our emotional response. And so on and so forth; it’s obvious, right?

Stop and think about it, though, and you realize it’s not quite that simple. The above statements do apply to the vast majority of movies, but they’re not quite universal. In every art form, there are works that upend conventional practices—not just in content, but in the basic building blocks of the medium. Visual artists create paintings and sculptures from unconventional materials. Musicians make music with objects designed for other purposes, and with manipulated, non-musical sounds. Writers tell stories with all sorts of self-imposed technical, narrative, and grammatical limitations.[i] And cinema is no different; even within the relatively narrow category of fictional feature films, there have always been works that function at least partly as experiments in limitation: how much can you strip it down and still have a compelling movie?

It would be hard to find a better example than the 2013 British drama Locke, a movie that’s maximally stripped down in just about every aspect. It’s less than 90 minutes long and takes place on a single evening, unfolding more or less in real time. It’s set almost entirely in a single, narrowly restricted location: inside a car on the motorway from Birmingham to London. Only one character appears onscreen—and after the briefest of opening sequences, only the top third of him. There are a number of other characters heard as voices on the phone, but for the duration of the movie, we’re with Ivan Locke in that car, making that drive.

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Strictly speaking, there is cinematic precedent for this; indeed, these sorts of self-imposed restrictions may be more common in film than in any other art form, probably because it’s so damn expensive to make a movie. (You can imagine any reduction in scope playing well in a pitch meeting.) Movies that take place in a single day or night are quite common once you start looking out for them, and even a list of those that unfold in real time is surprisingly extensive, including many classics and mainstream releases that you may not have noticed were structured that way.[ii] Single-location movies are also more common than you might think, from venerated classics (12 Angry Men, 1957) to indie horror flicks (Green Room, 2015) to high-octane action blowouts (Die Hard, 1988) where it’s safe to assume that cost wasn’t the main motivating factor. Even those that ride on a single performance aren’t confined to experimental films and micro-budget indies; Cast Away was one of the biggest hits of 2000 and won Tom Hanks an Oscar.

Such movies are uncommon, of course, a tiny fraction of cinema as a whole, but they do exist, even in the mainstream. And yet, Locke still feels like a radical, daring experiment—for two principal reasons, I think. First, it is genuinely rare for a movie to pile limitations on top of one another like this: if it takes place in a single day or in real time, it’s usually pretty typical in most other respects; if it’s set in a single location, we’ll probably see multiple actors, or some jumps in time, or both. And you’d be hard pressed to find any movie willing to show its protagonist exclusively from the chest up.

The second reason has to do with narrative content; Locke’s most distinctive limitation is that it’s a one-man show, so to speak, and other such movies are often similarly stripped down. The key difference is that the others usually involve some sort of physically extreme situation, with the lone protagonist lost in the wilderness, say, or being hunted by shadowy pursuers, or stranded in space, or imprisoned for some mysterious reason.[iii] Extremes certainly define the closest recent cinematic relative to Locke that I’m aware of: Rodrigo Cortés’s Buried (2010), in which Ryan Reynolds wakes up six feet underground in a coffin, with only a lighter, a cell phone, and a rapidly dwindling supply of oxygen. (I confess I haven’t been able to track that one down yet—and might not be able to get through it when I do, given my reaction to the buried-alive sequence in Kill Bill: Vol. 2.) Locke, on the other hand, is a single-actor movie that rides entirely on interpersonal interaction, and features little in the way of life-or-death danger—indeed, the only possible threat to Ivan’s physical well-being would be a car crash, and it’s never suggested that that’s likely.

It’s worth noting that when any work of art is restricted in an unconventional way, it’s always, on some level, a gimmick. Movies in particular need to attract the attention of fickle audiences, and something like this is guaranteed to at least arouse curiosity in those who might not otherwise notice. But that doesn’t mean that the choice can’t also be artistically valuable. Locke is one of those special movies that not only works within narrow restrictions, but is actually enhanced by them: a small-scale character study and family drama with fairly conventional narrative elements is given the gripping urgency of a thriller with much higher stakes.

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So how does it work so well? I think there are three key factors in the movie’s success, starting with its primary creator, the writer/director Steven Knight. He’s been in film and television for three decades, mostly as a writer, and on an uncommonly wide range of projects. In TV, he’s worked on comedy shows—Canned Carrott (1990 – 92) and All About Me (2002 – 04)—and more recently as the creator and sole writer of the historical crime dramas Peaky Blinders (2013 – present) and Taboo (2017 – present). He was also one of the original creators of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? in the late 90s. His film work is similarly varied, from romantic comedies to contemporary thrillers to historical dramas, and all sorts of stuff in between. He’s written small indie films like Woman Walks Ahead (2017) and action extravaganzas like Seventh Son (2014). His screenplays have been brought to the screen by various big-name directors: Michael Apted’s Amazing Grace (2006); Lasse Hallstrom’s The Hundred-Foot Journey and Edward Zwick’s Pawn Sacrifice (both 2014); Robert Zemeckis’s Allied (2016). The one thing Knight has done very little is to direct his own scripts; before Locke, his only directing credits were a few episodes of his comedy series The Detectives in the mid-90s and the unconventional Jason Statham action vehicle Hummingbird, which came out earlier in 2013. Overall, the critical and commercial reaction to his film work has been mixed, and interestingly, his most highly regarded movies as a screenwriter are also some of his earliest: Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things (2002) and David Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises (2007)—both chillingly effective thrillers about the dangerous, off-the-books London underworld where organized crime and illegal immigrant communities intersect. But no matter how his words have been translated to the screen, he’s always been impressively versatile, with a natural writer’s instinct for expressive dialogue and sound dramatic structure.

Those talents are perfectly suited to a self-consciously limited movie like Locke, which conveys story beats and character development mainly through dialogue, and which must be carefully structured to keep us from getting lost or losing interest. Knight handles it with the assuredness of a veteran storyteller, beginning with a doozy of a premise: Ivan, ultra-competent construction manager and dedicated family man, had a one-night stand several months ago with a woman he barely knows named Bethan—the only major mistake in his eminently respectable life, which fate has now contrived to make him pay for in the worst possible way. Bethan has gone into premature labor, so now, as Ivan drives to London to be there for the birth, he will be on his Bluetooth car phone juggling three closely intertwined crises: her childbirth and its complications; the reaction of his blissfully unsuspecting wife and sons; and his attempts to coach his colleagues through preparations for the biggest concrete pour (excluding nuclear and military) in European history, for which he will now, suddenly, be absent. That’s a lot to set up, but Knight’s dialogue does so clearly and naturally; the major plot threads are all established quickly, yet the characters rarely sound like they’re explaining things only for the sake of the audience. An initial suspension of disbelief is necessary—that Bethan has gone into labor at this particular time, on the night before the pour—but it’s far less significant than most movies demand, and once you’ve made it, everything else follows quite plausibly: why the birth is premature, why Ivan hasn’t told his wife yet, how the pregnancy happened in the first place, everyone’s utter shock upon learning about it, the twists and pitfalls that arise and the steps Ivan takes to deal with them. The premise creates an ideal situation, a sort of narrative symbiosis in which realism and drama reinforce one another.

That symbiosis is far from inevitable, however; Knight makes a number of smart decisions in the way he structures the story, maintaining a consistent, highly effective narrative balance that enhances both realism and dramatic payoff. Tension steadily mounts as the main narrative threads feed off one another: the increasingly dire complications with Bethan’s pregnancy, the increasing anger of Ivan’s wife, Katrina, as the truth settles in; the increasing uneasiness of his sons as they realize that something’s not right; and the increasingly complex problems that he has to help his subordinate, Donal, to solve—all growing more intense in tandem. But it’s not just a slow build to a final unraveling, which might seem too contrived; we also have smaller-scale detours in the narrative that make it seem more natural. A significant plot point—Ivan losing his job—happens fairly early on, and his frantic attempt to secure a road closure permit is begun and concluded in a similarly brief time. Knight also includes, along with main supporting players, a handful of other characters from whom we hear only once: an apathetic police officer, a friendly but harried doctor, a splendidly annoyed city official and a subtly judgmental nun. These third-tier characters, if you will, make Ivan’s ordeal feel more grounded in the real world, and contribute a lot to the occasional hints of Kafkaesque comedy in the story. (In the third act, the car itself becomes a character of sorts, its monotonously chipper declarations of “You have a call waiting” landing almost like slaps across the face as Ivan struggles to keep a grip on things.)

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We can also see that balance in the way Knight handles the principal storylines: not simply rotating through them, which would come to feel overly schematic, but never staying away from any one long enough that we lose track of how it’s progressing. Instead, he’ll put one thread on the back burner for a bit, developing the other two more deeply; it feels more organic, but it’s also carefully calibrated, creating a subtle spike in tension when a storyline that we’ve half forgotten about rears its head again—a call comes in with the associated name on the screen and we think, “Oh god, that’s right, he’s got that to deal with, too!” This happens over and over again, but Knight ensures that it never becomes a slog. Ivan is subjected to a pretty relentless cascade of anger and grief from these people, but individually, it’s hard to blame them for reacting the way they do. This, along with Ivan’s steadfast refusal to make excuses or claim that he somehow hasn’t done them wrong, ensure that they never quite come across like a chorus of tormentors, unfairly ganging up on our intrepid hero.

Which makes sense, because the same realistic balance is the defining characteristic of Ivan himself. Like most people in the real world, he’s a man “whose strengths and weaknesses are so bound together that it’s difficult to know where one ends and one begins,” as critic Mick LaSalle writes. “This is someone with a strong will, but too strong; who has confidence, but too much; who is honest, but sometimes ought to think about lying; and whose sense of responsibility is so pristine that he’s about to nail himself to a cross.”[iv] The plot reflects this complexity, as the aura of competence and dependability that Ivan has so assiduously cultivated ends up being a double-edged sword: it allows him to call in two favors, from the city official and from an old construction worker friend, that help to save the concrete pour, but it also means that his confession comes as an especially brutal shock to his wife, who never imagined that he’d do anything of the sort. His adherence to his principles is commendable, but it sometimes rises to absurd levels: when his wife asks him if he still wants a work-related phone number, he won’t lie or betray his other responsibilities even though it seems likely to cost him his marriage. His refusal to be like his alcoholic, absentee father has been the driving force behind his success so far, and is now leading him down a path likely to tear it all down.

Knight isn’t reinventing the wheel when it comes to character psychology; Ivan’s conviction that order and stability can be constructed out of even the worst situation, the attendant reverence for concrete as the ultimate material for making that happen, and its source in his hatred for his father—none of it is necessarily groundbreaking, but it is coherent and skillfully portrayed. Knight’s one misstep, in my opinion, is the inclusion of Ivan’s monologues to his imagined father in the back seat. I understand the inclination, but they don’t really tell us much that isn’t communicated elsewhere, and they have a stagey quality that the movie, powered as it is almost entirely by dialogue, otherwise does a remarkably good job of avoiding. But that’s a very minor quibble; necessary or not, the monologues are still forcefully written (you can imagine Knight’s reluctance to kill those particular darlings) and Tom Hardy still makes them into compelling viewing.

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Which brings us to the second key factor in Locke’s success. If a movie limited to a single face in a single location is going to work, it needs an exceptional performance to anchor it, and Hardy gives that and then some. Acting exclusively with his voice, face and hands, he nails the emotional beats of the story, vividly portraying coolheaded authority, tortured confession, fierce introspection, wrenching devastation and everything in between. Even confined to the driver’s seat, his inherent onscreen magnetism is undiminished; he holds our attention as completely as any actor with a normal range of motion. Ivan’s mellifluous Welsh accent was apparently Hardy’s idea, and it’s a perfect fit for a character who has built his entire identity around being competent and dependable. Hardy makes him an endlessly watchable and appealing protagonist, one whose obvious decency makes him easy to root for even when he’s making mistakes, or doing things that seem to border on self-sabotage. We like him because this is how most of us like to think of ourselves, at least at our best: capable, reliable, even-tempered, able to face adversity with aplomb.

At the same time, however, Ivan doesn’t come across as a one-dimensionally virtuous, perfectly unflappable hero. He’s defined by his sangfroid and professionalism, but he wouldn’t seem human if he never bent under the pressure. In moments of acute vulnerability, Hardy shows the toll this is taking on Ivan, and we see him trying to work through that along with everything else; he struggles to keep himself focused and under control, but he doesn’t always succeed: cracks appear in his unruffled facade, and his conflation of what he’s doing with the physical act of building eventually becomes sort of strange. And while Hardy embodies all the admirable qualities we mentioned, as David Edelstein writes: “The low boil is his natural state… Civilized as Locke is, nothing can soften Hardy’s innate volatility. He never seems still, even when his face is immobile, even when he’s trying so carefully to modulate his tone.”[v] This aspect of Hardy’s performance helps to connect us with Ivan on a deeper level, despite his specificity and exceptionality. I’m not British, don’t have a wife or kids, know nothing about concrete, and will probably never drive a BMW X5, but that vague undercurrent of restlessness, discontentment and regret feels deeply universal.

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We should also note that while Hardy delivers the tour de force that the movie needs, his performance isn’t the only one. The supporting actors are never seen, of course, but you’re probably more familiar with them than you realize. The voice of Bethan is Olivia Colman, who later played the pregnant spymaster in The Night Manager (2017) and won an Oscar for The Favourite last year. Ruth Wilson, who plays Katrina, had a starring role in The Affair (2014 – 18), and played the brilliant sociopath Alice Morgan in the British crime series Luther. The voice of Donal is Andrew Scott, better known as the wildly psychotic Jim Moriarty in Sherlock. Ben Daniels, who plays Ivan’s boss, was that photographer who had an affair with—and then inevitably had his life ruined by—Claire Underwood in House of Cards. And Ivan’s older son, Eddie, is none other than Tom Holland, now known round the world as the young Spider-Man in the great Marvel extravaganza. These are accomplished actors, and they make their characters’ personalities and emotions vividly felt, given the limited tools they have to work with. Knight set up the production to aid in this, devoting the first of two weeks to rehearsals and then filming the whole thing twice each night, with Hardy cruising down the real motorway in a car mounted on a flatbed truck, making real-time phone calls to the other actors, who were gathered in a conference room. They stopped only for cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos to change the memory cards, every 35 minutes or so; otherwise, Knight had them to perform it like a play, dealing with any irregularities in real time—surely a reason why the conversations sound especially natural and free-flowing.[vi]

The work of Zambarloukos and his crew is the third key factor in Locke’s success. It turns out there are a lot of ways to film a single journey on the motorway, and Zambarloukos captures it in widely varied, often beautiful images. Shooting with three cameras simultaneously, he changed the lenses when he changed the memory cards, and changed the camera angles for each run-through, generating what must have been a daunting amount of material to sift through. The production’s secret weapon is editor Justine Wright, who assembles all that footage in consistently creative ways, cutting quickly between disparate perspectives and often laying multiple shots over one another, resulting in a movie that, given its narrow scope, is quite visually compelling. And this approach has thematic significance; as Ty Burr writes, “Locke also intercuts skillfully and rhythmically between close-ups of its hero and the visual night music of England’s motorways. Occasionally the patternings of headlights, taillights, road signs and slipstream metal blur with a surreal beauty. It’s a universe that could so easily slip out of control, and all a man can do is grip the steering wheel tighter.”[vii] Headlights drift across the frame, so far out of focus that they appear as oval discs of light, while cars and signs pass by at odd, almost abstract angles, often layered over clearer images of Ivan at the wheel—a visual representation of his weakening grip on life outside of the car. Wright also creates visual parallels with the course of the narrative. At the beginning, we cut often to Ivan’s GPS navigation screen, which shows him moving along a straight, clearly defined path. But these images fade away as the movie progresses, and in the second half, we begin to get shots of the motorway from a static position, not moving along with the cars, again reflecting that loss of control.

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The visuals also express some deeper themes that Knight is exploring. The story may be narrowly focused, but Locke also gets at something fundamental about the way we live now, about the isolation and alienation that we often feel even as the world grows more interconnected. Ivan is deeply connected to other people, at times oppressively so, yet he spends the whole movie alone with his electronic devices, cocooned in a metal box as the world outside grows increasingly confusing and unmanageable. And on a separate but related note, Locke also examines, indirectly but powerfully, a certain unforgiving quality that persists in modern adult life. Ivan moves through an ill-defined, increasingly abstract blur of civilization, watching the place that he’s built for himself within it gradually crumble away. As he says to Donal during an impassioned speech about the purity of concrete, “You make one mistake, Donal, one little fucking mistake, and the whole world comes crashing down around you.” Perhaps this is something felt more strongly by younger generations like Ivan’s young Gen-Xers and my Millennials, whose entire adult lives have been spent in a cynical context: rising income inequality, worsening climate change, loss of old notions of financial security, ever more extensive documentation of everything we do, and so on. Life seems to keep getting freer and more comfortable, but there’s still a persistent sense that it can all be upended if you step too far out of line. Grow up poor, or didn’t get into a good college? The deck is already stacked against you. Get fired from a job, or get a bad review from a past employer? That’ll follow you around for the rest of your career. Make one mistake on the road? Say hello to a massive deductible and jacked-up premiums. Have trouble with rent, or get a bad review from a landlord? Good luck finding another decent place to live. Fall behind on student loans or credit card payments? You’ll be paying for it the rest of your working life.

It’s not as bad as all that, of course; heck, the world is probably more forgiving now than it ever has been in human history. And yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that, as in Locke, there’s very little latitude for any kind of major screw-up.

And a movie manages to explore such deep and tricky themes in just 85 minutes, showing only a guy in a car—all the while keeping you riveted from minute to minute? Knight, Hardy and their collaborators outdid themselves.

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© Harrison Swan, 2019

[i] My favorite example is the 20th-century French writer Georges Perec, who wrote a grammatically correct, 300-page novel without using the letter ‘e’—then wrote another one using only ‘e’ and no other vowels. You don’t even have to be familiar with the language; just look at any paragraph of regular written French and you’ll appreciate how mind-boggling that is.

[ii] Pretty interesting, if you’re interested: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Real_time_(media)#Film_and_television

[iii] Examples taken, if you’re interested, from this internet list of movies carried by a single actor. I’ve only seen a few of them, but they all look interesting, even if they aren’t all masterpieces like Locke: https://brightside.me/wonder-films/14-movies-with-only-one-amazing-actor-248910/

[iv] For the rest of this good review: https://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/Locke-review-Tom-Hardy-on-the-open-road-5445558.php

[v] Good, insightful reviews are just great: https://www.vulture.com/2014/04/movie-review-locke.html

[vi] Most of these fun facts about the production found in this informative review: https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/movies/moviesnow/la-et-mn-locke-review-20140425-story.html

[vii] More good reading: https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/movies/2014/05/08/locke-lets-tom-hardy-face-tell-story/kdAjKyGTu44ryyimshk02J/story.html